The Russian and Chinese Governments' Threat to the Internet As We Know It

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The world is at a crucial moment in the debate over basic human rights in cyberspace.

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Jason Lee/Reuters

The free and open Internet is under attack.

At a global conference in Dubai this week, Russia, China, and other like-minded governments will attempt to cripple the Internet and replace innovation, openness, and connectivity -- hallmarks of the Internet you know and love -- with international controls and censorship. Average Internet users stand to lose out because, if approved, these governments' proposals will create international norms that sanction government surveillance of routine Internet activity, such as online shopping, or censorship of user-generated content, like blog posts.

The Democracy ReportRight now, no single international organization or government can decide what technology can be used on the Internet, who can sell goods and services online, or what video gets uploaded on YouTube. The U.S. government, civil society, academia, and entities in the private sector -- including Google, Verizon, Cisco, and others -- are staunch defenders of this multi-stakeholder system. They stress how the current approach fosters the free flow of information and brings together the best of global business, civil society, and government. It's a formula that has so far successfully managed the global network-of-networks we rely upon in our daily lives.

The World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) is meeting behind closed doors in Dubai to update the International Telecommunication Regulations -- the primary treaty that covers international telecommunications. Over 150 countries will attend the WCIT and consider several hundred proposals. The U.S. delegation alone has more than 120 members -- a clear indication of what's at stake in the conference's outcome.

At the WCIT, several governments will urge the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to give them the tools to clamp down on Internet freedom. The ITU is a United Nations-affiliated entity that predates the U.N. and was originally founded in 1865 -- four years after the Pony Express shuttered its doors -- to promote the interconnectedness of telegraph networks across countries. It has since evolved, but the underlying ITU regulations have not been substantially updated since 1988, before the public Internet as we know it existed. The upcoming WCIT effort to modernize the ITU regulations is important because telecommunications have changed radically in the past 25 years -- but it's also dangerous because it opens the door to the erosion of freedom and human rights in cyberspace.

Russia, China, and their supporters seek to upend the current system and put in place new rules centralizing power within the ITU and its individual member states to control Internet content (e.g., videos, blog posts), allocate and control Internet resources (e.g., IP addresses), and replace existing Internet institutions (e.g., the Internet Engineering Task Force, which develops technical Internet standards through a bottom-up, consensus-driven process). For example, Russia proposed a new treaty provision to allow governments to shut down Internet access whenever someone in their territory uses the Internet to "interfer[e] in the internal affairs" of that country. All stakeholders who care about a free and open Internet are understandably wary of giving Vladimir Putin or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the discretion to apply such broad and vague powers.

These countries seek not only to exclude the private sector and civil society from critical Internet policy debates and decision-making, but also to create national barriers and other impediments to the interoperability of the Internet. They want to implement governmental controls that would fragment the Internet into separate digital bubbles -- like Iran's recently announced national Internet -- and give each government strict control over all Internet traffic within its national network. Such changes would not only stifle free speech and assembly in repressive regimes but also fundamentally balkanize the Internet.

These changes would also make it more difficult to achieve our critical national security goals -- especially promoting peace and self-government in unstable regions. For example, the proposals could threaten to expose anonymous speech -- such as criticism of a repressive government by pro-democracy activities or dissidents. They also seek to create a global norm allowing governments to unilaterally censor content they determine to "undermin[e] the sovereignty, national security, territorial integrity and public safety of other States, or to divulge information of a sensitive nature." Such overbroad language is ripe for abuse.

The Obama administration must continue to oppose the efforts of oppressive regimes to curtail basic human rights in cyberspace. Together with the private sector, civil society, and academia, the White House should continue to advocate and evangelize the benefits of the multi-stakeholder model that has successfully guided the Internet so far. Empowering the ITU and dividing up the Internet into a series of closely controlled national networks will stifle innovation, cripple the global marketplace of ideas, and effectively destroy the Internet as we know it.

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Eli Sugarman is a fellow at the Truman National Security Project and a former foreign-affairs officer with the U.S. State Department's bureau of international security and non-proliferation.

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