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Column: U.N. Couldn’t Control the Internet Even If It Wanted To

The International Telecommunication Union, a special U.N. organization that is “committed to connecting all the world’s people,” has ended 10 days of largely closed-doors meetings in Dubai, where the agenda seemed more aimed at controlling global communications. In opening remarks to the 2,000 delegates from 193 countries, ITU Secretary General Hamadan Toure emphasized that cybersecurity should come first and, implicitly, that it should come under his purview. For all the commitments to openness that he and others profess, this conference is about the national security interests of states.

For starters, Toure would like to see some form of U.N. control of Internet domain names and numbers, something currently administered by the private, nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). But this would hardly improve security by itself. There is a kind of naïve faith that if nation-states exert greater control over cyberspace-based communications, security will improve. China, Russia, and a host of other nations — most of them authoritarian — love the idea of more control, as this would enable greater censorship and erode individual privacy. Sadly, many liberal democratic states, out of a mix of economic and security concerns, go along with the idea of giving nations more authority to regulate cyber-communications.

Among the matters that are feared to be under discussion is the imposition of cyber tolls — charges levied to allow entry into a country’s cybersphere, or “virtual territory.” Another effort lies in the realm of fighting pedophiles and curtailing the worst sorts of pornography. Surely this is a noble undertaking, but some worry that authoritarians might really be aiming to further undermine their peoples’ freedom of speech, privacy, and civil liberties — all in the name of this good cause.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of increasing national-level control of cyberspace is the idea being bruited about that anonymity should be banned. Again, there are logical reasons to think about this: making life harder for terrorists, tracking criminals and deterring social predators. But many of these malicious actors have sufficient expertise to slip the bonds of such a ban, while the rest of us will have lost our privacy. The fact that “deep packet” inspection — giving nations the right and power to read encrypted cybertraffic — is also on the table for discussion is troubling too.

Several protests have arisen to the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai. One of the most articulate opposing voices is that of Vint Cerf of Google, an Internet pioneer. His critique has two parts: first, that voices other than those of nation-states need to be heard; second, that it is the very lack of governmental controls and sheer openness of the Internet that creates value and drives the information age forward.

Protest has also taken the form of insurgency. It seems that the hacktivist organization Anonymous may be involved in disruptive cyber acts that have slowed, and at one point stopped, the operations of the conference’s official website. This group and many people of like mind around the world see much to worry about when it comes to closed-door meetings of government representatives.

There is also deep irony in the desire of nations to seek more control over cyberspace. Dictators have abused their existing abilities to restrict access in efforts to chill dissent. Hosni Mubarak shut down the Internet in just such an attempt. But he failed, because the Egyptian masses had been using cyberspace to share their anger and gather their courage for many months before the regime struck at the Net. Indeed, the shutdown was the signal to the people that it was time to go to Tahrir Square. Bashar al-Assad seems to have tried something similar over a week ago, when the Net went down briefly in Syria. He too will fail.

In the end, U.N. efforts to control cyberspace, aided and abetted by all too many nations, will fail as well. The virtual world is a vast wilderness — artificial, but beautiful and complex, and growing in size and direction in ways that almost surely lie beyond the ability of governments to control. The sooner this is realized, the better. It will save the world from a costly global struggle between balky nations and nimble insurgent networks.

There are better things for the United Nations to focus on if it wishes to play a productive role in the information age. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, whose video address at the opening of the Dubai conference spoke of a desire to foster openness and Internet freedom, should act on his own words and reject the role of regulator. Instead, he should lead his organization as a negotiator, fostering behavior-based forms of cyber arms control — as there is still time to head off an age of “mass disruptive” cyberwars.

Almost all IT is dual-use. Any laptop can be used to wage cyberwar. But it is possible to craft agreements not to use such weaponry first, not to use it against civilian infrastructure or in acts of “cybotage,” as in the case of the Stuxnet worm attack on Iran. Many of the nations that have signed the chemical and biological weapons conventions can still make these terrible weapons, but promise not to do so, or to use them. If the United Nations wants a role, it should seek a similar behavioral approach to arms control in cyberspace. Russia first proposed something like this at the United Nations back in the ‘90s. The United States opposed it. Now the Russians are among the best cyberwarriors in the world, and American cybersecurity is in a parlous state.

What is to be done? Let me make a modest suggestion to Toure: Stream the remainder of the Dubai conference to the world in a live webcast. Allow a global discourse to commence, one in which nations and networks together will find the right way ahead. If you are for openness, then be open.

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John Arquilla is professor of defense analysis at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School and author of Worst Enemy: The Reluctant Transformation of the American Military.