In an Opinion page piece in the Wall Street Journal on July 23rd, Robert McDowell, an FCC Commissioner, warns of a threat by the United Nations to take over regulation of the Internet. He bases his concern on the prospect that the FCC will soon classify the Internet as a “telecommunication service”. This, he suggests, could lead the International Telecommunication Union, a treaty-based organization under the auspices of the U.N. which regulates international telecom services, to assert regulatory power over the Net. He supports his concern by noting the spread of efforts by certain states to regulate the Internet, citing government interference in Iran, North Korea, Syria, China and Afghanistan. He concludes that the success of the Internet has come because of the relative freedom it enjoys.
Commissioner McDowell’s concern about the efforts of largely totalitarian regimes to attempt to regulate the freedom of speech which characterizes a substantial part of the Internet is well placed, albeit nothing new. Critics have voiced concern over state regulation of the Internet for years, with warnings such as those expressed by Harvard and now Stanford Professor Laurence Lessig expressing this concern in his Code and Code 2.0 books.
What strikes me as dubious and far less likely is that any organization operating under the auspices of the U.N. would be able to reach an international consensus about how to regulate the Internet. The decade long failed effort of the U.N. to reach a uniform standard for the enforcement of judgments eloquently exemplifies how unlikely it is that any such consensus could be reached.
So, while the freedom of the Internet may indeed continue to be threatened by dictatorial regimes, and perhaps also by large corporate interests, I think it unlikely that we need to add U.N. management to the threat list.