The future of innovation is at stake in the debate over Internet freedom

Discord over telecom treaty reflects global schism.

Last week, the World Conference on International Telecommunications, organized by the International Telecommunications Union, concluded in Dubai with the passage of revisions to a 25-year-old treaty written for a telecom-focused world to include the Internet. One simple sentence caused the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, and 55 other nations to vote against a new agreement:

“[A]ll governments should have an equal role and responsibility for international Internet governance and for ensuring the stability, security and continuity of the existing Internet.”

The ITU’s power-grab for including the Internet in the telecom space has been troubling over the past several months. Granted, the language above is contained in a non-binding resolution but its inclusion goes to fundamental beliefs on how nations will and should approach the global Internet. At its core, it lays bare the schism between nations espousing Internet freedom versus those espousing Internet sovereignty -- a schism that will have a tremendous impact on nations’ capabilities to counter cybercrime, cyberterrorism and promote cybersecurity in the future.

On one side is the U.S., Canada, and our allies supporting efforts to allow for the free flow of the Internet -- whether that flow involves ideas, commerce, or entertainment. On the other side is Russia, China and their allies advocating for Internet sovereignty and the ability to shut down the Internet and control what their users access.  It is the modern day version of the Cold War, with zeros and ones replacing nukes and traditional arms.

How a nation controls the Internet affects commerce, intellectual property rights, and trade. The Internet does not follow traditional borders or stop at nations’ edges so a common understanding of how it should be governed and by whom is critical to its future. Nations, especially those that espouse sovereignty over freedom, know that control over the Internet affects their national and international stature. Deciding whether sovereignty or freedom should underpin cyberspace will set the direction on how nations’ treat significant legal and policy challenges, such as national defense norms; criminal and civil penalties; standards; trade and privacy.  If nations are allowed to dictate sovereignty over freedom, then online firewalls will become the Berlin Wall of the 21st Century.

While last week’s action is not binding, it does tell us that the U.S. and its allies will need to be aggressive in diplomatic and international negotiations going forward with regards to Internet governance. Tearing down walls, once built, is a difficult, if not impossible, task. In many ways, the future of innovation can and will be decided by who wins the Internet debate on the international stage.