“The Internet is quite simply under assault,” was the way Federal Communications Commission member Robert McDowell put the situation last month. As early as last February, McDowell had been warning of the encroaching desires of control over Internet freedom by infamous state actors around the world, most notably China and Russia. In a Wall Street Journal piece he wrote last year, McDowell quoted Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wanting to establish “international control over the Internet” via the United Nations.
The measure drafted in a conference held in Dubai is the most recent of such attempts to establish governmental control over Internet usage. It would grant more stringent control over not only ordinary Internet access, but also over mobile device and emergency service.
The United States was, of course, among 55 countries that refused to sign the telecommunications treaty, but might not be enough; 89 countries ultimately signed the pact. The setting and atmosphere under which these politics are taking place can’t be ignored either; when the 57-nation delegation approached the UN with an anti-blasphemy proposal last summer, the Secretary-General himself, Ban Ki-moon, was in agreement with the proposition and supported it. While the US seems hesitant to allow other countries regulating powers in the digital world, the Bush and Obama administrations have been all too eager to seize broad eavesdropping and cyber-warfare power themselves.
The more daunting danger, however, is not political but financial. Media corporations have sought after methods of controlling Internet freedoms by legal means for several decades, beginning with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and continuing with SOPA/PIPA. These acts are proposed by unelected executives with tremendous influence through lobbying organizations and connections with lawmakers and politicians.
Ultimately, what we could find ourselves facing is a proposal of middle-ground compromise between totalitarian states fighting for power over their own people, governments like our own desiring greater ability to spy and fight through cyberspace, and media corporations trying to defend a dying monopoly on digital entertainment. Such a crossroads of powerful interests colluding to censor, monitor and litigate, enacted through binding law on an international scale, is the gun being pointed at the rest of us. Pointed at us, ironically, in the name of niceness, safety and legality.
I don’t mean to paint a picture of doom. Fortunately, the UN has proven to be rather impotent on such matters in the past, and even if such a powerful resolution is passed, the USA may choose to simply ignore it. This, however, is not a foregone conclusion either; support for such laws and regulations does rise from the seats of elected officials within our government. If, as Clay Shirky bluntly puts it, you’d “prefer that the Internet not be broken,” it may be worth keeping such policies in mind the next time you go to the ballot box. The struggle has been around for a while, and doesn’t show any sign of going away anytime soon.