The global battle for the internet is about to begin

2012 is the year that freedom online will be challenged. In the UK and the US, proposals are being introduced for website blocking in the name of copyright and child protection. In America, the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (Sopa) is already causing seismic protests. But in 2012 we will also see a push to regulate internet governance internationally. This is unprecedented. It could impact global economic growth and end the spontaneous nature of the internet as we know it.

While the well-meaning but often counter-productive and costly battle over web-blocking plays out at home, on an international level over seventy countries including Russia, China, and Brazil are seeking global regulation of the internet. The effort seeks to overturn the current consensus approach, where businesses, governments, think tanks, developers and other stakeholders meet regularly to discuss internet issues and problems. The internet develops through communication and agreement – and thrives in countries which have little regulation. A recent McKinsey report shows that for every traditional job lost to the internet 2.6 jobs are created, and in mature markets 21 per cent of GDP growth in the last five years can be attributed to the internet. The internet can also be used as a tool of power and control, as we have seen in China and Iran, and these countries show lower growth by comparison.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is a treaty-based organisation that is a specialised agency of the United Nations. The ITU has 193 countries in its membership and some of these members have proposed imposing binding mandates, exercising control over, for instance, regulating mobile internet roaming charges, regulating charges for internet backbone peering, removing the administration of domain names from Icann and controlling the development of internet architecture. We would see the impact of these new controls immediately. No longer would developers work together in a voluntary capacity through the Internet Engineering Task Force and no longer would we see the emergence of new top level domains, including the possibility of .London, as discussed in the Forum earlier this month. The spontaneous and collaborative nature of the internet would slow to a crawl or be put offline altogether.

Governments of developing countries find these proposals particularly attractive, since they often feel sidelined and left out of internet discussions. However, the explosive growth of the internet – and especially the mobile internet – in these countries has the potential to improve healthcare, longevity and economic growth. When governmental institutions refrain from regulating, growth and prosperity in first and third world countries improve.

If the internet comes under centralised control, then innovations that we have yet to see will not be conceived. The free internet will have been switched for a system in the hands of UN bureaucrats and paper-pushers, not individuals. Our freedom online is in peril and we must protect it with all our might.

Dominique Lazanski is an independent consultant and head of digital policy for the Taxpayers’ Alliance.