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Foreign governments are lining up to wrest control of the internet from freedom-loving hippies, thunders FCC commissioner Robert McDowell in a call to arms in the Wall Street Journal.

In the piece the commissioner claims the International Telecommunications Union is planning to make a play for control as soon as next week, backed by traditional enemies of freedom including Russia and China. The idea is that the freewheeling internet, which isn't burdened by any governmental control apparently, is about to come under the tyrannical boot of the United Nations - and the US is guilty of letting it happen.

All of which could be quite scary, if any of it were true.

The ITU has said, time and time again, that it has no interest in running the internet. Earlier this month the organisation's secretary general pointed out that even if he had a mandate (which he doesn't) he hasn't the budget. ITU budgets are always linked to policy objectives, and taking over the internet is not a policy objective.

But that's not stopping McDowell, who fears cyber-cops in blue helmets would:

Allow foreign phone companies to charge fees for 'international' internet traffic, perhaps even on a 'per-click' basis for certain web destinations, with the goal of generating revenue for state-owned phone companies and government treasuries.

...and that's not all, they could also...

Impose unprecedented economic regulations such as mandates for rates, terms and conditions for currently unregulated traffic-swapping agreements known as 'peering'.

That one is particularly interesting because peering agreements are what makes the internet tick, as it stands, and the web is profitable for the US.

Most internet users pay a flat rate for their access, but service providers do not. When a UK surfer loads content from a US website his UK ISP has to pay the US network to carry the traffic. The model is supposed to be reciprocal, but as the majority of content is American, it's the Americans who make money from it.

It's not really quite that simple - international caching organisations reduce the burden, and companies like Google colocate services to reduce the cost of peering, but the internet still brings in a lot of money to the US, as the ITU has pointed out before.

Which is, sort of, fair enough: they invented the thing, and the US government runs most of it, so if we want American content then we have to pay for it. But, according to the good Mister McDowell the Americans might not be running it for much longer as the ITU has aspirations to take control of IANA, not to mention the IETA, the Internet Society and (most chilling of all) it plans to "regulate international mobile roaming rates and practices".

Hang on... that last one is part of the ITU's remit. It negotiates international agreements between telecommunications operators to ensure one can make calls while travelling - that's why the organisation was set up in 1865 and still makes up the majority of its work.

McDowell claims there's a meeting scheduled for 27 February where the land-grab will be agreed, and that these things will pass into international law in December - as though the US ever moved that fast. He's referring to the WCIT (the World Conference on International Telecommunications), which starts in Geneva next week, but the agenda for that was set months ago and includes no clause to make a grab for cyberspace.

So the question becomes not if anyone is trying to take over the internet, but who stands to gain by spreading the rumour that such a takeover is on the cards. ITU reps, speaking off the record, are starting to fear some sort of conspiracy themselves: they've adamantly stated that they have neither the desire, nor the budget, nor the mandate, to interfere with governance of the internet, and yet the scare stories just refuse to die. ®

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