Internet governance has been in the news recently, with some news outlets reporting that the United Nations is trying to “take over” the Internet, a claim that we want to clarify here.

Right now in Dubai, representatives from 193 member states are meeting at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) to renegotiate the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs). The ITRs, a binding international treaty, were adopted in 1988 to regulate international telecommunications. To date, they have successfully fostered agreements between member states, allowing for the efficient deployment of communications services, while avoiding an overbearing regulatory touch that stifles innovation and ignores market demands.

However, regional groups and member states have proposed extending the ITRs to govern the Internet in ways that would threaten openness and innovation, increase access costs and erode human rights online.

Let’s look at this from a trade perspective first. If enacted, certain proposals could put member states in violation of existing international commitments. As detailed by the European Centre for International Political Economy, most World Trade Organization member states must refrain from imposing restrictions on many Internet services. Yet, a number of proposals would expand the ITRs and its potentially burdensome regulations to the Internet, despite being originally designed for traditional telecommunications. It could subject private entities, such as banks and search engines that process information online, to this international regulatory framework.

There is growing evidence that the Internet is an economic powerhouse. According to the McKinsey Global Institute report Internet Matters, the Internet’s “impact on global growth is rising rapidly”. Among the countries studied for the report, the Net produced 11% of their growth in the past five years. Vint Cerf, the so-called “father of the Internet”, compares it to the printing press in its ability to affect every industry. The economic benefits of a free and open Internet flow to those states that embrace its disruptive power. State-based regulation of the Internet, via an expanded mandate from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), puts that at risk. And if you combine the “sending party pays” model being proposed by the European Telecommunications Network Operators, an ITU sector member, which would require online content providers to pay to reach users, the economic costs could be enormous.

But the so-called “takeover” is more than an economic threat. Certain proposals would extend the scope of the ITRs to include content regulation, such as defining and regulating spam, or address cybersecurity. The proposals that would classify a communication as spam are based on whether the communication has “no meaningful message” and require member states to take “appropriate measures” to counter these communications. No meaningful message according to whom? This definition contains dangerously subjective terms that could be broadly used by governments that routinely extend definitions to achieve political aims; and under this binding international treaty they could be legitimized in doing so. This poses a real threat to Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects “information and ideas of all kinds”.

Adding the economic and social arguments together, the WCIT is not a “takeover” strategy by the UN, but, I believe, represents a government-only institution taking worrying steps in the wrong direction. That is why many in civil society are urging WCIT delegates to vote down ITR amendments that threaten the Internet’s role as an engine for innovation, development and human rights and ensure that Internet governance remains a multistakeholder domain.

Brett Solomon is the co-founder and Executive Director of an international NGO that works for Internet freedom and digital rights. He is a member of the Global Agenda Council on the Future of the Internet.

Photo: REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke 

All opinions expressed are those of the author. The World Economic Forum Blog is an independent and neutral platform dedicated to generating debate around the key topics that shape global, regional and industry agendas.