U.N. taxes, censorship would destroy Internet, critics warn

'Sender pays' principal would cost U.S. telcos billions for shipping data overseas

It is an obsession only among the paranoid that the United Nations is plotting to take over the world and kick legally elected national governments out of their own capitals.

A new push from China, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia is raising hackles with nearly all the big powers within the U.N., including Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, representatives of both the Republican and Democratic parties in the U.S.

At a rare meeting of international telecom companies later this year at the World Conference on International Telecommunications, U.N. officials, telcos and internet companies will discuss a series of proposals to create a new information security organization responsible for creating a single set of standards for security, privacy and content that should be provided over public networks.

China raised the issue in 2008, quietly working with the International Telecommunications Union to draft technical standards for security and monitoring critics charge could make the Internet a giant listening post for secret police and other organizations dedicated to quashing internal political opposition.

Now a pair of documents from the European Telecommunications Network Operators Association (ETNO), a lobby representing telcos in 35 countries, shows global carriers are working on even more changes that could add oppressive surveillance and security to even the most free parts of the Internet.

It could also change the whole economic model of the web, making the Internet expensive, impractical and elitist rather than the global easy access point it is now.

The proposals would impose on the Internet the same standard created to assign the cost of phone calls coming in from overseas.

Rather than allowing or requiring the telco serving the caller and the one serving the callee each charge their customer for a single call, the standards require that the caller or the caller's ISP be responsible for the cost of making the call – just as is the case in European cell-phone companies.

The "sending party pays" rule of financing makes cell-phone service much less expensive for people in the coultries that have implemented it because it removes the burden requiring that people receiving a phone call pay for air time even though the caller is also paying for the call.

Under the ETNO's proposal, content companies such as Google, Microsoft, Amazon and others would be forced to pay for data flowing to their customers or subsidiaries overseas.

The change would end the open, free Internet (for which national governments and telcos actually pay), according to critics, who warn poor, isolated countries would become isolated because providers of the streams of data coming in from other countries would have to pay millions for the right to send content to places that provide little or no revenue in return.

The documents, leaked by public-policy advocacy site WCITLeaks, could also prompt U.S.-based companies to save as much money as possible by moving data out of the U.S. and into countries that would act as staging areas for less expensive delivery of the same content.

It would also erode national sovereignty by allowing governments to censor, restrict or impose extra cost on any content they didn't like, according to an article (PDF) entitled "The U.N. Threat to Internet Freedom," written by Robert McDowell, a Republican member of the Federal Communications Commission.

Even if it passed, the U.S. could refuse to ratify the treaty or enforce the laws. Even that would cause divisions among countries that do or do not support the new rules and taxes, leading to a balkanization of the Internet that would raise the cost of maintaining Internet infrastructure and give any country through which a megabyte of data passed the right to intercept, read or ban it.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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