Eli Dourado is a research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.
Starting on May 14, the International Telecommunication Union – an agency of the United Nations – is kicking off a meeting for governments and telecom companies to discuss "international Internet-related public policy matters." Up for debate are six draft opinions on various aspects of Internet policy, but the unifying question is: how much should governments (and intergovernmental organizations) involve themselves in the building and running of the Internet? Under the current system, governments do very little – and the Internet has flourished because of it.
Here are five reasons we should resist giving governments a bigger role in Internet governance:
1. Censorship: Some governments want to be more involved in managing the Internet so that they can better monitor who is saying what online. Reporters Without Borders lists five governments that it classifies as "State Enemies of the Internet," and there are several more that are nearly equally as repressive. A greater role in managing Internet resources, such as IP addresses, would make it even easier for these governments to monitor and censor speech online.
2. Technical expertise: Under the status quo, decisions about Internet governance are cooperatively made by some of the most talented network engineers around. The bottom-up, peer-production model of Internet standards-setting selects for the best ideas from this pool of great technical minds. In contrast, if these decisions were made by government bureaucrats, the quality of the engineers would go down and the decision-making process would be politicized. The Internet would likely be less robust and secure if governments and intergovernmental organizations like the U.N. were in charge.
3. Innovation: We already have experience with state-run communication networks. Remember the AT&T monopoly? Ma Bell's policies stifled innovation because they placed strict limits on which devices could connect to the network. Customers had to pay extra if they wanted to use a phone that wasn't black. It was only when AT&T lost a court case in 1968 and was finally broken up in 1984 that innovation of all kinds – in answering machines, cordless phones, mobile phones – really took off. In contrast, you can connect almost anything to the Internet without anyone's permission. This has led to the explosion of smart devices – from smartphones to thermostats – that we have recently witnessed.
4. A unified, global Internet: Email and "voice-over-IP" services have drastically reduced the revenues that some governments still receive for international telephone calls. To replace these lost revenues, some of these governments have advocated charging international "long distance" Internet traffic fees. If a university wanted to offer a free video course to students in Ethiopia, the university would have to shell out money. In practice, universities probably would not be able to afford to offer free content to students in all countries. Fortunately, under current arrangements, every user just pays for his or her own access to the Internet, and international data transfers are unpriced. This means the entire globe can connect on the same terms.
5. A successful governance experiment: What is really incredible about the Internet is that no single person or organization is in charge! Billions of people use the Internet, but there is no central planning – the Internet is managed cooperatively by thousands of network operators, engineers and non-profit organizations. It is an inspirational example of what can happen when people come together on peaceful terms. It would be a shame to bring this wonderful experiment to a close by giving governments or the U.N. the keys to the Internet.