If you've been reading certain newspapers or watching certain TV channels lately, you'll have been told that an obscure United Nations body this month plans to yank control of the Internet from the United States and hand it over to countries like Russia, China and Iran.
In the same way that U.N. committees on human rights are dominated by human-rights violators, the story goes, so will Internet rules and regulations be placed in the hands of repressive governments, who will use them to further subjugate their peoples.
Such warnings aren't coming only from conservative media outlets. Google, Greenpeace and the International Congress of Trade Unions are also worried about dangers to online freedom.
Vint Cerf, one of the founding fathers of the Internet, testified to Congress this past summer about his concerns. There's even a Wikileaks-style website devoted to unearthing the U.N. body's dirty secrets.
The real danger
The reality is much more boring. The body in question, the International Telecommunication Union, which opened the 18th World Congress on International Telecommunications in Dubai yesterday (Dec. 3), has little power and cannot take over the Internet.
But the ITU does have the power to let countries change the rules within their own borders — such as in the way data transmission on the Internet is paid for.
If current proposals before the ITU are approved, Google, Facebook, Apple and other American content providers may find themselves paying hefty fees to send data to various countries — and may pull out of those countries altogether.
"The battle is whether information services/Internet interconnection will continue to be deregulated and privately negotiated … as they currently are," said Milton Mueller, a professor of information studies at Syracuse University.
The alternative is "whether national governments will try to make them more like the telephone charging regime, which was often manipulated to protect national monopolies," said Mueller, who is one of the founders of the Internet Governance Project, a Syracuse, N.Y.-based think tank that studies how the Internet is managed and makes policy recommendations.
The ITU is largely an international standards-setting body governing all forms of radio, television and telephone communications, including mobile phones. But it isn't like the Federal Communications Commission, which can fine people or organizations. Such enforcement is left to each country's regulators.
Formed in 1865 as the International Telegraph Union, the ITU is the reason that +1 is the telephone country calling code for the U.S. and Canada, +7 is for Russia and the former Soviet Union and +27 routes calls to South Africa. It also regulates the orbits of communication satellites.
Much of the enforcement mechanism comes from the fact that radio, television and telephony would simply not work without some international agreements in place, just as postal agreements make it possible to mail a letter from one country to another.
All of the rules of the road set by the ITU, though, are only enforceable insofar as member states want them to be.
Simply put, if the U.S. or any other nation wanted to violate some part of the treaty that makes up the rules of the ITU, there's little that would happen, practically speaking. Of course, large, rich countries may be in a much better position to flout treaty obligations than small ones.
The data goose and her golden eggs
So what's going on in Dubai over the next two weeks?
Basically, the 193 member states of the ITU, along with a number of telecommunications companies (some 700 non-voting organizations will be attending), are discussing whether or not data transmission should be considered a telecommunications service akin to voice calls.
Ordinarily, Internet and data services are looked at as a separate animal from telephone service, even though in most cases the networks are almost the same. Fiber-optic cables under the ocean don't distinguish between voice and data traffic.
There are a few reasons for this separation of definitions. One reason is that the last time the ITU agreements were updated in 1988, the World Wide Web didn't exist and the Internet was an obscure playground for university researchers and the U.S. military.
Another reason is that many governments, not just those the U.S. doesn't care for, want to have more control over Internet use in their countries.
A third reason is money. Telephone companies' voice revenues are dropping and data use is increasing, but voice calls generate more revenue per user. Some developing countries would like to fund building bigger networks, and revenue-sharing is one way to do that.
Google's potential long-distance bill
Currently, data usage is billed like water or electricity. Internet service providers in all countries charge the recipient for the amount of data transmitted, and they don't keep track of who sent each data packet.
But voice calls are like postage. The sender pays, and the farther the call has to go, the more he's charged.
The European Telecommunications Network Operators Association, a group representing 38 national telephone companies, has proposed allowing national regulators to switch data-usage billing to "sender pays" format.
Needless to say, that would complicate the situation for ISPs, and make it very expensive for content providers.
That's why companies like Google are upset about the prospect. The danger to Internet users is that if companies like Google don't want to pay, they'll just go dark in whichever country switched to sender pays.
"It would be a simply huge undertaking," said Emma Llansó, policy counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C. "Content providers could just decide it isn’t worth it."
Phone systems are designed to track who sends a signal, but Internet service providers are not, and it would require a lot of technical work to change that.
Not everyone sees revenue-sharing schemes as terrible. Kosta Grammatis, one of the founders of A Human Right, a San Francisco-based organization that advocates for expanded Internet access, said that paying for network build-out is still a big issue for developing nations.
There once were proposals for content companies to pay more in those countries, "but I don't think those got any traction," Grammatis said. "But it got Google scared."
Whether such changes can happen at all is another issue. There are 193 member nations in the ITU, and each gets one vote. Theoretically, changes can be pushed through with a simple majority, but that almost never happens.
Why not? It's because some countries might choose to simply not ratify the treaty. If the U.S., the European Union or China didn't want a treaty to take effect, not ratifying it would probably sink it.
Anything the ITU does needs to be broadly acceptable to every member state. Any country can propose changes to the current treaties. But that doesn't mean any of them will be listened to, voted on or passed.
There are reasons to be concerned about other provisions. For example, the ITU currently affirms the right of member states to cut off access to communications for national security reasons.
Some governments want more — they have pushed for a universal scheme to identify users and their points of origin on the Internet. (This would be necessary anyway if sender pays is adopted.)
Even if some bad provisions are only vague statements of the rights of member states, "you don't want to enshrine that in a treaty," Llansó said.
But there are already tight restrictions on the Internet in some countries. Nothing the ITU does is likely to change that.
Conversely, in the U.S., there's simply no possibility that any other country could impose rules that conflicted directly with U.S. law.
The very idea of intergovernmental control is probably not going to work in any case, Mueller said. On his blog, he called it a "failed ideology."
Mueller noted there already was a failed attempt to take control of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the American non-profit organization that's chartered by the U.S. government to regulate Internet domain names.
Whatever comes out of the Dubai conference, it won't be a U.N. takeover of the Internet. This doesn't mean there's no reason for people to be concerned or involved.
But the current system of setting standards has worked so well that even nations that are wary of the influence the U.S. has — and that influence is still huge — might be reluctant to alter it much.
Llansó said she sees the focus on the ITU as an opportunity, if nothing else.
"It's a major opportunity to talk about what their vision is," she said. "To see what the playing field will be like."