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December 04, 2006

The UN – Help The Internet Can Do Without – A Rant

The headline in today’s NY Times reads: “U.N. Agency Wants to Nourish the Internet, Not Govern It”.  The article is about the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) which  is hosting ITU Telecom World in Hong Kong this week.  The Times says that a major issue there will be whether the ITU should extend its role to the Internet.  The answer, in case you were wondering, is “NO!” in every one of the many languages spoken at the UN.

The Times is charitable in saying:  “In simpler times, the agency’s role as a global arbiter of radio frequencies and standards helped make it possible for the telegraph and the telephone to cross borders.”  The ITU did have a role in the allocation of radio frequencies at a time when that was important (not sure what that had to do with the success of wireline telephony and telegraph but we’ll let that go).  Now the agency’s entrenched interest in having something to regulate is one of the more significant obstacles to the necessary deregulation of radio spectrum.

More recently the agency has been noted for its active role in administering the settlement rate structure which kept the prices of telephone calls artificially high – especially in the developing world.  The Internet has long been an unregulated thorn in the ITU’s side, not in the least because the Internet and VoIP helped to collapse the settlement rate structure the ITU protected on behalf of actual and former telco monopolies.

The Internet grew up a commercial entity despite both the hostility of the ITU and the ITU’s glacial regime of standard’s setting which was about as innovation-resistant as any mechanism known to man.  The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), which reports to no government or group of governments, has been responsible for the coordination of most Internet standards.  In fact, may Internet “standards” are formalizations of protocols invented by a single vendor and adopted by the marketplace.  That system has worked fine and innovation on the Internet continues to flourish although the IETF itself has become somewhat sclerotic in middle age.

There is always a danger that reconstituted monopolies like at&t will, at some point, be able to throttle all this messy innovation but it hasn’t happened yet.

Simply put, there is no role for the ITU or the UN in Internet governance.  Frequencies don’t need to be allocated on the Internet.  New standards get adopted at almost a market pace and usually get implemented before the formal adoption process . IPv6 or some flavor of it will bring us extra addresses and somewhat better security.  Free speech flourishes (in most parts of the Internet) because it is beyond the control of any single government.  Wireless Internet and mobile phones (neither of them regulated by the ITU) have been much more potent catalysts for economic development in the developing world than has the slow growth of expensive (partly thanks to the ITU) traditional wireline phones.

It’s uncomfortable to some that the US Commerce Department has partial control over the roots of Internet directories.  It wouldn’t be a bad idea if a way were found to avoid having any controlling entity for DNS (domain name service).  However, putting these directories in the hands of an international organization, many of whose members don’t even nominally believe in free speech is moving in exactly the wrong direction.  In 2003, Libya was elected as chairman of the UN Human Rights Commission.  Similar logic would have China chairing an ITU taskforce on open communication.

In fact, it wouldn’t be a good idea to have the US FCC running a free speech taskforce either.  One of the many good things about the Internet today is that no gets to define (and thus limit) free speech.  Most of us get a chance to help protect it.

The UN has a long way to go regain the trust it needs to perform the roles it already has.  It has not dealt with its own problems of corruption.  Its peace keeping forces have been largely ineffectual.  Its administration of the Iraqi oil embargo and Food for Peace program allowed Saddam both to rearm and to build castles with money meant for humanitarian relief.  Apparently he did more of the latter than the former but no thanks to the UN.

I think the Internet needs less governance, not more.  And, if I had to pick a governor, it certainly wouldn’t be the UN and sure as hell NOT the ITU.

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