Published February 13, 2013
At a United Nations conference in December, 89 countries voted in favor of international government regulation of the Internet. Specific regulations have not been agreed upon, but FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell told FoxNews.com he fears the U.N. may seek further rulings at a 2014 conference in Busan, Korea.
He says the consequences could be dire.
"You’ll have international bureaucrats making engineering and business decisions," McDowell told FoxNews.com.
The U.N. has no power to force the United States to adopt any Internet regulation, and the U.S. refused to sign the December treaty, along with 55 others countries. But if a large number of countries agree on regulations, the Internet could become fragmented, with very different rules applying in different regions of the world.
"That becomes an engineering nightmare," McDowell said.
Russia has pushed hardest for international Internet regulation.
"In the future we could come to a fragmented Internet," warned Andrey Mukhanov, one of Russia's representatives to the U.N. conference, as the U.S. and many European countries declined to sign the treaty in December.
"[Fragmenting] would be negative for all, and I hope our American and European colleagues come to a constructive position."
But by a "constructive position," Mukhanov means one with international web regulation.
Regulatory proposals range from changes in the way web addresses like ".com" are distributed to charging websites for sending information (a company like Facebook or Google could be required to pay cable companies a charge every time someone used their site). McDowell said such charges could kill some sites.
"MIT and Harvard recently introduced free classes online. Well, that sort of thing starts to dry up if they have to start paying to put things online."
Technology groups and companies like Google say that the regulations, while they often seem nice on the surface, give government the power to censor content.
What is clear ... is that many governments want to increase regulation and censorship of the Internet,” a Google spokeswoman told FoxNews.com after the U.N. vote in December.
While countries like China already censor Internet content within their borders, further U.N. action could give international approval to such practices.
"Those who keep the Internet open, and working, and thriving -- they’re very concerned about this," McDowell said.
So far, the United States has taken a firm anti-regulation stance in its negotiations at the U.N. But McDowell says he's worried that the State Department isn't preparing soon enough for the upcoming fight.
"This May, there is a conference in Geneva ... it will lay the stepping stones that will lead to that conference in 2014. I’m very concerned that the stepping stones will be laid without adequate U.S. involvement," McDowell said, adding that a spate of retiring ambassadors has lead to a leadership vacuum. Ambassador Terry Kramer, who represented the U.S. at the December conference, is also no longer involved.
"We’re leaderless... it’s unclear to me who’s actually in charge with all those leadership gaps at the State Department," McDowell said.
A State Department spokesman said that they were doing their best.
"The Department closely monitors threats to Internet freedom throughout the world... and [stresses] -- both at the ITU and all other appropriate engagements -- the necessity of an open, interoperable and innovative Internet."
The spokesman added, "we raise Internet freedom regularly in bilateral and multilateral dialogues with foreign governments."
Regardless of how prepared the U.S. is for the upcoming negotiations, the administration's position has been consistently against U.N. regulation so far.
"The Internet evolved so quickly that there’s no bureaucracy that could keep up with that," McDowell, a Republican who Obama re-appointed to the FCC, explained.
"Having the [U.N.] inch its way into this space is highly counterproductive. It really ultimately threatens global freedom and prosperity. It sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not."