The Internet has created an extraordinary new democratic forum for people around the world to express their opinions. It is revolutionizing global access to information: Today, more than 1 billion people worldwide have access to the Internet, and at current growth rates, 5 billion people — about 70 percent of the world’s population — will be connected in five years.
But this growth trajectory is not inevitable, and threats are mounting to the global spread of an open and truly “worldwide” web. The expansion of the open Internet must be allowed to continue: The mobile and social media revolutions are critical not only for democratic institutions’ ability to solve the collective problems of a shrinking world, but also to a dynamic and innovative global economy that depends on financial transparency and the free flow of information.
The threats to the open Internet were on stark display at last December’s World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai, where the United States fought attempts by a number of countries — including Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia — to give a U.N. organization, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), new regulatory authority over the Internet. Ultimately, over the objection of the United States and many others, 89 countries voted to approve a treaty that could strengthen the power of governments to control online content and deter broadband deployment.
In Dubai, two deeply worrisome trends came to a head.
First, we see that the Arab Spring and similar events have awakened nondemocratic governments to the danger that the Internet poses to their regimes. In Dubai, they pushed for a treaty that would give the ITU’s imprimatur to governments’ blocking or favoring of online content under the guise of preventing spam and increasing network security. Authoritarian countries’ real goal is to legitimize content regulation, opening the door for governments to block any content they do not like, such as political speech.
Second, the basic commercial model underlying the open Internet is also under threat. In particular, some proposals, like the one made last year by major European network operators, would change the ground rules for payments for transferring Internet content. One species of these proposals is called “sender pays” or “sending party pays.” Since the beginning of the Internet, content creators — individuals, news outlets, search engines, social media sites — have been able to make their content available to Internet users without paying a fee to Internet service providers. A sender-pays rule would change that, empowering governments to require Internet content creators to pay a fee to connect with an end user in that country.
Sender pays may look merely like a commercial issue, a different way to divide the pie. And proponents of sender pays and similar changes claim they would benefit Internet deployment and Internet users. But the opposite is true: If a country imposed a payment requirement, content creators would be less likely to serve that country. The loss of content would make the Internet less attractive and would lessen demand for the deployment of Internet infrastructure in that country.