Should countries be encouraged to set up online tollgates that would allow them to monitor and charge for the content of communications crossing their borders? In the U.S., thank goodness, both political parties reject the idea. But some other governments -- chiefly Russia and China -- advocate expanding the authority of the International Telecommunications Union, an agency of the United Nations, to push forward such an approach. A global conference of more than 150 countries convened this week in Dubai to consider it.
The idea also has some support from telecommunications companies, notably the European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association, that would like to assess fees on content providers -- online video companies, for instance. They would like, in other words, to be able to make money not only from their subscribers, but also from any business hoping to use their wires to reach those subscribers.
In an age when global networks are used increasingly for important purposes such as electronic health record-keeping and long-distance education, it is essential that ITU governments continue to say no to tollgates and monitoring of all kinds -- and preserve the open Internet we have had since its inception.
The World Conference on International Telecommunications is being held in Dubai this week and next to update the treaty that governs how communications networks connect to one another around the world -- regulations that have existed since the 19th century but haven't been revised since 1988, before the Internet became what it is today.
The government representatives attending the conference hold their discussions behind closed doors. Still, it is easy enough to understand the commercial interest being generated -- simply by following the money.
Once upon a time, telecommunications operators earned their money chiefly from people using telephones. These profits have been undermined by the popularity of less expensive online communications services such as VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), and now the companies are looking for new sources of revenue. They can't charge fees to content providers, however, unless they know what content is crossing their lines. The Internet-control strategy that some governments want would give them the capacity to sniff out that content.
Just before the Dubai conference began, the standards arm of the ITU quietly endorsed a new "deep packet inspection" policy that would have standard Internet technology include mechanisms for examining the content of Internet communications. (A copy of the proposed standard, which was distributed to member countries but not the public, has been leaked.) Thus, governments could monitor political messages, and telecommunications companies could find out whether users employ applications, such as online telephone services, that might compete with the companies' businesses.
At the Dubai meeting, Russia and a number of Middle Eastern countries have called to make this standard mandatory for all Internet technology companies and network operators' equipment.
The Center for Democracy & Technology, a nonprofit organization in Washington that promotes Internet freedom, says that the technical standard could "give governments and companies the ability to sift through all of an Internet user's traffic -- including emails, banking transactions and voice calls -- without adequate privacy safeguards."
This kind of wholesale surveillance would enable profit- maximizing network operators to charge special fees for particular uses of the Internet. Under the draft standard, Internet users wouldn't have the ability to cloak traffic in virtual envelopes that would keep it private. Needless to say, no consideration has been made for the security risks posed by adding such sniffing capabilities to a network.
The outcome of the Dubai meeting, standing alone, is not likely to change the Internet used by people in the U.S. Congress would have to adopt any treaty amendments before they could be effective in the U.S. There is little danger of that happening.
For good measure, on Dec. 5, the House of Representatives passed a unanimous resolution opposing centralized UN control of the Internet.
What's at stake, however, is the free global Internet pathway. If any one country erected a toll system by itself, it would probably lose its connection to the rest of the Web and become an unpopular and isolated island. But if a large group of countries collectively agreed that such toll-taking makes sense, the decision could change the architecture and generative nature of the Internet for everyone.
Susan P. Crawford is a contributor to Bloomberg View and a visiting professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Law School.