For the next two weeks, the International Telecommunication Union — a United Nations agency that was formed to regulate telegraph lines in the 19th century — will try to make new rules for the internet. This makes some people worried, but nobody should be. The entire conference is pointless.
The World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12), which kicked off today in the oppressive and oppressively hot emirate of Dubai, is ostensibly a good thing. In the sense that any event which brings together the many nations of the world to decide things together in harmony is a good thing, like carbon emissions treaties and Middle East peace talks.
But the major difference between WCIT-12 and the noblest business of the UN is that there’s no clear goal here. Envoys from 193 countries are going to sit down to try to form Internet policy; and there’s no consensus about what that should look like. Among the 900 divergent proposals, a few primary — and contradictory — goals have surfaced:
- America’s Cold War frenemies like Russia and China want to move control of the Internet’s domain name system — which keeps those little .com and .net bits humming — out of American hands. Why? No reason in particular, the system works fine. It’s just a good ol’ fashioned superpower rivalry.
- Conservative/totalitarian countries that dislike the Internet’s bouillabaisse of hardcore porn, vivid culture, and infinite free speech want to place some clamps on how the Internet can be used, out of moral, religious, and political fears.
- Some European regulators and telecom firms want to see companies like Google taxed extra to reach its customers, as if an electron becomes harder to deal with if it crosses an ocean. Basically, this just comes down to making more money, and threatens a global approach to net neutrality.
- The ITU wants to make itself important in any possible way; to be viewed as a planetary Internet authority.
- The US just wants to keep things exactly the way they are. No changes at all. None.
So what’s going to happen? Nothing. Nothing is going to happen. Passage of any of the, again, over 900 proposals on the table will require a “consensus”, which means more than a majority vote. Good luck getting 193 countries to agree on something that has to do with freedom of speech, money, regulation and American Imperialism.
And let’s say, hypothetically, the world reached a consensus on one of these 900 proposals. Let’s say that it was even a huge one — stripping control of Internet domains away from ICANN and giving to the United Nations. Then what?
Nothing. The ITU has no enforcement mechanism. In other words, it has no way to make anyone do anything.
ITU: “Hey, United States, almost all of us agree that ICANN shouldn’t be in charge of this important function of the Internet. Hand it over.”
ITU: “Well, all right.”
That’s all there is to it. Unless the United Nations sends an amphibious infantry landing to march on Silicon Valley, the US will stay in control of the Internet’s name system. The ITU won’t become any more irrelevant than it was since the telegraph died. Authoritarian regimes will keep blocking insidious western filth via firewall like they have been all along. Parisians will keep streaming YouTube videos whenever they feel like it, just like usual. The status quo will remain.
There will be no takeover, no battle — not even a tickle fight. Regulators and representatives will squawk at each other in an expensively-air conditioned hotel somewhere in Dubai, and when the conference ends, the web will be exactly the same as when it began. And unless you’re a dictator, that’s probably a very good thing; the Internet works best when we keep our hands off of it.