We are likely all used to companies collecting information about our private online activity.  Most top internet sites install tracking software that monitors activity across domains.  With such pervasive internet surveillance already in place, one might ask what expectations of online privacy remain.

Despite open acknowledgement of private internet monitoring, most of the international community has not openly embraced government internet surveillance.  In recent years, however, many countries have called for regulation and oversight of the global Internet.  Proposals to regulate the Internet focus on both structural issues, like routing IP traffic, and content issues, such as protecting children and cyber-security.

On December 14, 2012, the United Nations (U.N.) wrapped up a two-week World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai.  While the head of the U.S. delegation to the summit claimed that the delegation never intended to focus on Internet issues, proposed updates to an international communications treaty would have directly impacted international regulation of the Internet.  Under the proposed treaty, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) would oversee Internet communications.  The ITU is a U.N. agency that currently regulates conventional radio and telephone communications.

Despite attempts to avoid Internet content issues, the United Kingdom representative to the conference noted that they “keep coming up[.]”  A major point of contention among delegations was a provision, article 5B, that aimed to regulate international spam but opened the door to overt government efforts to monitor Internet content.  Because governments would first have to read electronic communications to screen out spam under this provision, this regulatory measure would sanction a degree of government censorship.  Wary of such consequences, a coalition of countries, including the United States, Canada, and Western European nations, successfully opposed efforts to place Internet regulation under the control of the ITU.

Beyond article 5B, several other conflicts arose.  Notably, a number of delegates opposed language that would create “human rights obligations” in the treaty.  Additionally, many parties have objected to the way in which the resolution concerning Internet regulation was proposed.  The conference chair introduced the resolution without formal notice, purportedly in order to “get a sense of the room,” and determined that the resolution passed without taking a formal vote.  With only 89 of 193 votes, the resolution ultimately failed.

When floating the idea of Internet regulation, participants considered a number of proposals ranging from adopting long-distance telephone payment structures for Internet calls to more disconcerting requests by Russia and Iran to monitor Internet traffic that is routed through their borders.

Many believe, however, that the Internet is successful precisely because it is unregulated and decentralized.  Others oppose proposals for the U.N. to regulate the Internet because online network operations are highly technical and far beyond the expertise of bureaucrats.  Additionally, because the Internet evolves so rapidly, many experts consider international treaties to be too rigid to effectively address Internet-based concerns.

While governments are likely to institute some measures in the future to shore up their cyber-security, the United States appears committed to preventing formal international regulation of the Internet  — at least for now.


–Danielle Barav

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One Response to U.N. to Regulate the Internet?

  1. Katharine Skinner says:

    I thought the mention about opposition to “human rights obligations” was interesting. After doing a bit more research it sounds like some of the same countries who were most interested in heavy government regulation of the internet were also the ones who voted against putting in any “human rights obligations” language. Meanwhile countries like the U.S. and Sweden, who supported such language, were also the ones opposing government regulation of the internet. It appears that the division over this one small sentence really represented the division about the issue of government regulation as a whole.