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Science and Technology

December 15, 2012

U.N. couldn't control the Internet even if it wanted to

The International Telecommunication Union, a special U.N. organization that is "committed to connecting all the world's people," is near the end of 10 days of largely closed-doors meetings in Dubai, where the agenda seems more aimed at controlling global communications. In opening remarks to the 2,000 delegates from 193 countries, ITU Secretary General Hamadan Toure emphasized that cybersecurity should come first and, implicitly, that it should come under his purview. For all the commitments to openness that he and others profess, this conference is about the national security interests of states.

For starters, Toure would like to see some form of U.N. control of Internet domain names and numbers, something currently administered by the private, nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). But this would hardly improve security by itself. There is a kind of naïve faith that if nation-states exert greater control over cyberspace-based communications, security will improve. China, Russia, and a host of other nations -- most of them authoritarian -- love the idea of more control, as this would enable greater censorship and erode individual privacy. Sadly, many liberal democratic states, out of a mix of economic and security concerns, go along with the idea of giving nations more authority to regulate cyber-communications.

Among the matters that are feared to be under discussion is the imposition of cyber tolls -- charges levied to allow entry into a country's cybersphere, or "virtual territory." Another effort lies in the realm of fighting pedophiles and curtailing the worst sorts of pornography. Surely this is a noble undertaking, but some worry that authoritarians might really be aiming to further undermine their peoples' freedom of speech, privacy, and civil liberties -- all in the name of this good cause.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of increasing national-level control of cyberspace is the idea being bruited about that anonymity should be banned. Again, there are logical reasons to think about this: making life harder for terrorists, tracking criminals, and deterring social predators. But many of these malicious actors have sufficient expertise to slip the bonds of such a ban, while the rest of us will have lost our privacy. The fact that "deep packet" inspection -- giving nations the right and power to read encrypted cybertraffic -- is also on the table for discussion is troubling too.

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