For the next few days, the eyes of people who care about the fate of the Internet will be sharply focused on a meeting in Dubai. That's where representatives of the 193 members of the United Nations have come together to talk about a new treaty on global telecommunications. The previous one dates back to 1988, when fax machines were still cool and cell phones (for those lucky few who had them) were the size of a brick.
Normally this isn't the sort of thing that would prompt headlines. But the run-up to the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT, pronounced "wicket") has stirred up some scary talk. If you believe the Wall Street Journal, the Internet is about to be "rewired by bureaucrats" -- a process it likens to "handing a Stradivarius to a gorilla." A commentator at Fox News could barely restrain himself from summoning the black helicopters: "The future of freedom in the 21st century may be about to be deleted, at the click of a mouse." Meanwhile, an op-ed at HuffPost huffed that the very fate of the "open Internet" is at stake.
Remarkable. Finally America's left and right seem to have found a common enemy: the U.N.'s nefarious ninja army of Internet oppressors.
It's gratifying to see that people are so eager to react to perceived threats to the freedom of cyberspace -- something that too many of us probably take for granted. And there's no question that there are major dangers to the openness of the Internet out there. But it's not the United Nations that we should be really worried about. "The real threats to the Internet come from nation states," says Milton Mueller, a professor at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies. "And that includes some of the Western governments as well as the more authoritarian governments."
The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) -- the group that is meeting in Dubai this week -- is a bureaucratic organization that was founded in the nineteenth century to ensure that different national telegraph networks could talk to each other. It consists of representatives from each member government. That should give you an idea of how flexible it is.
The ITU is also weak. Each country has one vote, meaning that most proposals will get watered down to a least common denominator. And the ITU has little power to enforce its rules. Despite all the conspiracy theories, the U.N. has never really shown itself to be good at imposing its will on the world. Why would we think that it could have its way with the notoriously protean Internet?