Now, it's true that Russia has floated the idea of giving greater powers to the ITU, an effort designed to give national governments much more of a say over cyberspace than they have now. The proposal was a non-starter, and it was withdrawn before WCIT even got started. And it's also true that China has quietly lobbied for some very dubious practices that it has tried to smuggle into global technical standards. But that initiative doesn't seem to have gotten very far, either.
Yes, these moves are ominous. There's no question that the same governments that aim to maintain tight control over the Internet within their own borders would like to see the same philosophy on the international level. "It took a while for governments to figure out how potentially destabilizing Internet access is," says Susan Crawford, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School. "Now that they think they've understood it, they're considering acting in a way to protect themselves." And some of them clearly see the United Nations as the place to pursue this aim.
It's not only the police states that want to meddle with global Internet governance. Some democracies -- India, Brazil, and other places of the developing world -- do, too. Their motives often have less to do with politics than money. Some of them want to erect protectionist barriers that would compel the big Western Internet companies like Facebook and Google to pay for access to their national markets. (The countries in question want to use the resulting fees to build their own internet infrastructure.)
What all these efforts have in common is that they aim to undermine America's control of the institutions that currently define how the Internet works -- or at least that's how many other countries see it. The Internet was invented in the United States, of course, and Americans still play an outsized role in shaping its operations. The domain name system of the Internet is controlled by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a private, non-profit corporation that is subject to U.S. Commerce Department oversight.
This has made ICANN the focus of considerable ire in foreign capitals. Russia, China, and Brazil have talked about shifting control over domain names to the U.N. or to individual national governments. Earlier this year, a commentator at the People's Daily, the Chinese Communist Party newspaper, railed against U.S. dominance: "The United States controls and owns all cyberspaces in the world, and other countries can only lease Internet addresses and domain names from the United States, leading to the U.S. hegemonic monopoly over the world's Internet."
There are undoubtedly many people in Washington who wish that this were true. But it's doubtful that anyone exercises anything like a "hegemonic monopoly" over the global Internet today, which, despite its origins in the U.S. Department of Defense, has evolved over the years into a vast, decentralized entity -- less an organization than an organism -- that depends on voluntary standards. Today most of the web's operations are defined by an ever-shifting cloud of companies, industry groups, and users. "‘Internet governance' is probably the wrong term to use," says Kevin Werbach, a professor at Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania. "There isn't a need for a body to govern the Internet."