A Note to Congress: The United Nations Isn't a Serious Threat to Internet Freedom—But You Are

The most serious threat to Internet freedom is not the hypothetical specter of United Nations control, but the very real creeping cyber-statism at work in the legislatures of the United States and other nations.

This article was originally published in The Atlantic

Tomorrow, lawmakers in the House of Representatives will vote on a powerfully worded resolution declaring that "it is essential that the Internet remain stable, secure, and free from government control." The target of the bi-partisan resolution? The United Nations. That's a bit rich, coming from a legislative body whose appetite for Internet regulation is rapidly growing.

The House resolution, which has garnered over 50 co-sponsors, proclaims that it is "the consistent and unequivocal policy of the United States to promote a global Internet free from government control and preserve and advance the successful multistakeholder model that governs the Internet today." Lawmakers are particularly concerned about the UN's International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which is currently planning what will be on the agenda for December's World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai.

The fear that the ITU might be looking to exert greater control over cyberspace at the conference has led to a rare Kumbaya moment in U.S. tech politics. Everyone -- left, right, and center -- is rallying around the flag in opposition to potential UN regulation of the Internet. At a recent congressional hearing, one lawmaker after another lined up and took a turn engaging in the UN-bashing. From the tone of the hearing, and the language of the House resolution, we are being asked to believe that "the position of the United States Government has been and is to advocate for the flow of information free from government control."

If only it were true. The reality is that Congress increasingly has its paws all over the Internet. Lawmakers and regulators are busier than ever trying to expand the horizons of cyber-control across the board: copyright mandates, cybersecurity rules, privacy regulations, speech controls, and much more.

Earlier this year, Congress tried to meddle with the Internet's addressing system in order to blacklist sites that allegedly infringe copyrights -- a practice not unlike that employed by the Chinese to censor political speech. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) may have targeted pirates, but its collateral damage would have been the very "stable and secure" Internet Congress now wants "free from government control." A wave of furious protests online forced Congress to abandon the issue, at least for the moment.

Having apparently learned their lesson, Congress has left out direct regulation of the Internet from the comprehensive cybersecurity legislation they are now considering. A previous version of Senator Joseph Lieberman's bill would have given the president an "Internet kill switch" to be used in times of emergency, much like the one used by Hosni Mubarak during the Egyptian revolution. Nevertheless, the legislation that is now making its way through Congress could undo an untold number of privacy protections and give law enforcement and the National Security Agency access to personal information without a warrant.

Members of Congress today are critical of proposals by Russia and China to enact an information security convention, possibly including the ability to censor content in order to ensure domestic stability and security. But lawmakers were the ones who engaged in this behavior last year, by pressuring American companies to block WikiLeaks after its release of State Department cables. As a result of this pressure, Amazon stopped hosting the cables on its servers, Every DNS dropped service (making the wikileaks.org domain inoperable), and payment processors like Visa and Mastercard refused to accept donations for the group, almost bankrupting it.

Privacy-related mandates are also proliferating rapidly both within Congress and the Obama Administration. The push for new privacy rules has meant less time spent pursing controls on speech and expression, but for the previous decade Congress had introduced a steady stream of censorship measures. In 2006, by a lopsided 410-15 vote, the House passed the Deleting Online Predators Act, which proposed a ban on social networking sites in public schools and libraries. This followed attempts by both federal and state lawmakers to impose online age verification schemes and filtering mandates on the Net. In those cases, courts consistently struck down these censorial laws as violations of America's First Amendment free speech rights.

While the congressional resolution is commendable, these examples make clear that congress would do well to heed its own cries of alarm. The most serious threat to Internet freedom is not the hypothetical specter of United Nations control, but the very real creeping cyber-statism at work in the legislatures of the United States and other nations. We hope those members who vote for the resolution tomorrow will remember their distaste for Internet regulation in the future.