The Great UN ITU Boogeyman – The Fake Story of an Internet Takeover

We’ve seen this story pop up repeatedly over the last several weeks of some conspiracy by the UN to grad power from the US and take over the Internet. While we’ve seen the story, we never really covered it mainly because the story just didn’t smell right to us. Not surprisingly, the story turned out to be a fake story. Still, the big conspiracy is persisting even after it’s an established fact that it is extremely unlike that the ITU will be magically able to take control of the Internet.

Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes

Nate Glass once accused sites of trumping up fake news stories in order to satisfy some narrative in accordance to some agenda. Well, if you want a fake news story, you could try reading about a plot where a UN body called the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) wants to take over the Internet.

It’s not entirely clear what the origin of this story is, but we do know one of the early iterations that helped propel this story to the spotlight was an Op-Ed in the New York Times by Vinton Cerf where he was raising alarm bells over the issue:

Against this background, a new front in the battle for the Internet is opening at the International Telecommunications Union, a United Nations organization that counts 193 countries as its members. It is conducting a review of the international agreements governing telecommunications and aims to expand its regulatory authority to the Internet at a summit scheduled for December in Dubai.

Such a move holds potentially profound and I believe potentially hazardous implications for the future of the Internet and all of its users.

At present, the I.T.U. focuses on telecommunication networks and on radio frequency allocations rather than the Internet per se. Some members are aiming to expand the agency’s treaty scope to include Internet regulation. Each of the 193 members gets a vote, no matter its record on fundamental rights and a simple majority suffices to effect change. Negotiations are held largely among governments, with very limited access for civil society or other observers.

The story was picked up by CNN which made the following comments:

A regulated Internet regime would disrupt the global free flow of information and commerce. So where is the business opposition to the United Nations’ effort to control the web?


The bureaucrats at the United Nations, prodded by developing countries and exemplars of democracy like Russia and China, have hit on an enticing new way to control global communication and commerce: They want to regulate the Internet.

It’s one of those rare issues in this heated campaign season that is uniting the political left, right, and middle in Washington. Business leaders beyond Silicon Valley would be smart to sit up and take notice, too — and fast. American opponents are being seriously outpaced by U.N. plans to tax and regulate that are already grinding forward in advance of a December treaty negotiation in Dubai.

It’s interesting that the New York Times now suddenly cares about the security of the Internet and how there’s these very real threats to the openness of it. Since the New York Times now suddenly cares about any threats to the Internet as we know it, surely they are also talking about the very real threats that the TPP represents. Let’s turn to Google to see what the New York Times has to say about the TPP this year:

So… in other words, the TPP is just something that will increase exports and boost trade. Nothing too controversial about it as far as the New York Times. Maybe I missed it in the midst of all the other activity, but I don’t remember the New York Times raising alarm bells over the big threat to the Internet when the copyright. My Google-fu doesn’t necessarily pick up anything related to copyright and the openness of the Internet from the New York Times.

To be fair, the New York Times did cover the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement and the threat it poses to the Internet… sort of:

CNN, on the other hand, that news organization is really a hardcore Internet freedom news organization. When it comes to the TPP, one of the biggest issues concerning Internet freedom is the copyright provisions. So, naturally, if CNN is concerned about the future of the Internet, they would have lots to say about the copyright provisions of the TPP. So, lets use Google to find all the Interesting an insightful comments CNN has about the copyright provisions in the TPP that could cause so many problems with the freedom and openness of the Internet:

What? Nothing? I mean, literally nothing?

Well, what about any mention of intellectual property being in the agreement? Google gave me these results:

We clicked on the one result that seemed to show any promise here (purple link) and it pointed to a top ten list where intellectual property attacks were related to cyber crime and the TPP was simply a trade issue.

So, what about the concerns about ACTA? To CNNs credit, that does appear to be something that was covered in detail:

The thing is that when sources (in general, not necessarily referring to the New York Times and CNN in particular) that don’t normally cover things like the safety and security of an open Internet unless prodded forward because of widespread street protests are suddenly the first to report on a new threat to the Internet involving organization branches I never heard of (ITU), the question that comes to my mind is, “What is also going on anyway?” It’s not that these sources can’t report on it (I’m all for it), but I do sit back and watch to see if this is a legitimate concern or not. At the time when this story first circulated, I simply wasn’t sure on it. It felt like something might not be quite adding up, but I couldn’t necessarily prove the story to be wrong at the time.

So, what was it? Was the story worth worrying about or is my gut instinct warning me of something here? Turns out, my gut instinct was right. After the story circulated, Michael Geist wrote a column piece about the issue in the Toronto Star. This is what column said:

The latest concerns arise from the World Conference on International Telecommunications, scheduled for Dubai later this year. The ITU is rumoured to be ready to take another shot at Internet governance control, a fear fueled by the notorious secrecy associated with the conference documents (the actual proposals were leaked on the Internet last week).

Given past history, there is little reason to believe the ITU will succeed. Yet the issue is likely to recur for as long as the U.S. treats the Internet as its own.

Successive administrations have regularly pressured ICANN on various policy matters, including efforts to get it to drop plans to create a dot-xxx domain (after years of global consultation and the development of a neutral process for approval) and expressed serious reservations with the introduction of hundreds of new domain name extensions. While a multi-stakeholder approach means that governments have an opportunity to express their views on policy issues, the U.S. seems to believe that some views count more than others.

In fact, some of the same U.S. politicians who expressed outrage over the ITU plans only months ago were supporters of the Stop Online Piracy Act, the now-defeated controversial anti-piracy bill that included provisions that meddled with the domain name system.

Like an air mattress after getting pierced by a knife, the story’s legitimacy began to deflate. A day later, the New York Times ran a story called “Debunking Rumors of an Internet Takeover”:

Internet conspiracy theorists will be disappointed. The latest one, fueled by “open Internet” groups, Internet companies like Google and some U.S. lawmakers, was that mouse-clicking bureaucrats at U.N. headquarters in Geneva, supported by governments suspicious of the United States, were scheming to take over the Internet itself.


By last month these fears had grown so fevered that U.S. lawmakers introduced a resolution calling on the government to block proposals that “would justify under international law increased government control over the Internet and would reject the current multistakeholder model that has enabled the Internet to flourish.”

Vinton G. Cerf, the “chief Internet evangelist” at Google, warned during congressional hearings: “The open Internet has never been at higher risk than it is now. A new international battle is brewing a battle that will determine the future of the Internet.”

The alarmist talk gave rise to wire service and blog headlines like “U.N. takeover of the Internet must be stopped, U.S. warned” and “U.S. reiterates resistance to I.T.U.-U.N. Internet land grab.”

Time for a reality check. Documents prepared for the December meeting, which leaked out last week yes, on the Internet show that there are no proposals to hand governance of the Net to the I.T.U. The union insists that it has no desire to play such a role. And even if some governments would like to give the agency increased regulatory powers, the United States and other like-minded countries could easily block them.

I think the New york Times partially redeemed themselves, although I’m not to sure about the idea of pinning this whole debunked story simply on “conspiracy theorists” when it was the New York Times itself that ran the story. As for the other suggested “Internet conspiracy theorists” who ran those headlines, those might include CNET and The Register.

So, there’s probably a few red faces right about now. Now, we could go on about the various other sites that also carried this story and make a few smart remarks to insinuate some artificial superiority over other sites while shaming others for not getting every detail right before they have a chance to make corrections, but we write professionally around here. As such, we’re not in the business of putting other sites down at all for the sole purpose of making ourselves feel better, but rather, report the news as accurately as we can and provide commentary where needed.

Unless there’s something big that really changes this story around (unlikely given the comments made by Michael Geist in and of itself), I consider this story pretty much dead.

At least, I thought this story was dead until I saw Slashdot pointing to an article on the Wall Street Journal. The article comments:

The WCITLeaks site hit pay dirt this past Friday. Someone leaked the 212-page planning document being used by governments to prepare for the December conference. Mr. Dourado summarized: “These proposals show that many ITU member states want to use international agreements to regulate the Internet by crowding out bottom-up institutions, imposing charges for international communication, and controlling the content that consumers can access online.”

The broadest proposal in the draft materials is an initiative by China to give countries authority over “the information and communication infrastructure within their state” and require that online companies “operating in their territory” use the Internet “in a rational way” in short, to legitimize full government control. The Internet Society, which represents the engineers around the world who keep the Internet functioning, says this proposal “would require member states to take on a very active and inappropriate role in patrolling” the Internet.

Several proposals would give the U.N. power to regulate online content for the first time, under the guise of protecting against computer malware or spam. Russia and some Arab countries want to be able to inspect private communications such as email. Russia and Iran propose new rules to measure Internet traffic along national borders and bill the originator of the traffic, as with international phone calls. That would result in new fees to local governments and less access to traffic from U.S. “originating” companies such as Google, Facebook and Apple. A similar idea has the support of European telecommunications companies, even though the Internet’s global packet switching makes national tolls an anachronistic idea.

Another proposal would give the U.N. authority over allocating Internet addresses. It would replace Icann, the self-regulating body that helped ensure the stability of the Internet, under a contract from the U.S. Commerce Department.

Even by those comments, it sounds like the ITU isn’t entirely sure how they can execute any sort of authority at all. It sounds more like throwing a bunch of proposals out there thinking one would eventually stick. Knowing this, it’s still hard to even treat this story seriously. I might be interested in this story if there was an actual proposal being seriously considered (ala, the UN will execute process ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’ and ‘D’ in order to achieve goal ‘A’). the TPP, I would argue, is substantially more developed than what is being insinuated here.

If there’s an actual plan being seriously proposed that would overcome the barriers Michael Geist and the New York Times follow-up piece has suggested, maybe this would be worth looking at. Until then, I still remain skeptical on this one. I think there are more immediate threats to the Internet to worry about.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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