Internet freedom is not something to be taken lightly, as anyone who has tried to gain access to forbidden sites in China will tell you. The countries that would like to censor Internet content, including Russia, China, Iran and others, were eager to see their authority to do so etched into a United Nations treaty debated at a conference last month in Dubai. The United States and other nations committed to a free and open Internet refused to sign the treaty. It was a largely symbolic protest but the right thing to do.
The World Conference on International Telecommunications brought together 193 nations to consider revisions to principles last modified in the pre-Internet days of 1988. The principles govern the largely technical work of a specialized U.N. agency, the International Telecommunications Union. Much of the conference debate turned on whether the principles should be expanded to give national governments and the agency more voice in regulating the Internet.
Those governments that hunger for more control are not paragons of freedom. China, which already maintains the world's most pervasive Internet censorship machine, tightened its controls at year's end, requiring users of social media to disclose their identities. Russia has been moving toward selective eavesdropping to tamp down dissent. The treaty debated in Dubai may not change anything they are already doing but could provide a veneer of political cover.
The United States objected to a resolution appended to the treaty saying that "all governments should have an equal role and responsibility for international Internet governance." Translation: Let national governments get their hands on it. The United States has maintained that Internet governance should rest, as it does now, with a loose group of organizations, including the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which manages domain names and addresses under contract with the U.S. Commerce Department. There are suspicions aplenty in the rest of the world that this is the equivalent of U.S. control — suspicions that should not be ignored. While the Internet cannot fall into the hands of those who would censor and restrict it, the United States should put more effort into remaking the current model so that it can serve what has become a global infrastructure.
Ambassador Terry Kramer, who headed the U.S. delegation in Dubai, was clear that a power grab by the repressive countries was a non-starter. "No single organization or government can or should attempt to control the Internet or dictate its future development," Mr. Kramer insisted.
The conference did serve to highlight broad, opposing camps over Internet freedom. After the United States pulled out, 89 nations signed the agreement, including Russia, China, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela. The blank screen of the Internet censor is not likely to disappear soon. A long and fateful battle looms for digital freedom.