The future of the internet could be at stake at a conference beginning this week in Tunisia, where diplomats from more than 100 countries will debate United Nations jurisdiction over the web. What emerges from the World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly will affect geopolitics and global economic growth, and possibly internet freedom for billions of users.
U.N. members will address cybercrime, privacy and the potential regulation of internet companies, applications and content. Most important, diplomats will discuss the emerging Internet of Things, which will soon connect tens of billions of devices and people to the global network.
A new navigational and addressing technology, Digital Object Architecture (DOA), could enable the real-time surveillance and tracking of each device and individual connected to the web. Some governments are advocating that DOA be the singular and mandatory addressing system for the Internet of Things. They also want this system to be centrally controlled by the U.N.’s International Telecommunication Union, which has contractual rights to the underlying intellectual property.
At the meeting in Tunisia, China is working to join the leadership of the global study group on DOA and the Internet of Things, which the U.N. projects will generate $6 trillion in global economic value by 2025.
Digital Object Architecture tracking tools could be integrated into industries ranging from aviation to pharmaceuticals.Such a system could also help governments mandate charges for any online financial transaction, such as through bank ATMs, credit-card payments, electronic money transfers or mobile banking. Such transaction taxes could upend the pace of investment and innovation in the internet space and distort global commerce.
The brewing conflict comes at a difficult moment. On Oct. 1, the Obama administration relinquished its legal oversight of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), which manages the Domain Name System. The fight over Icann’s future ended a decadeslong bipartisan consensus on how to protect an open internet. U.S. policy makers should put the Icann fight behind them and work together to think strategically about the emerging geopolitics of the internet and restore both unity and resolve to a fragmented American tech policy. At risk is the internet’s technical architecture and regulatory structure, which scores of nations seek to bring under foreign government and multilateral control.
These latest developments are part of a broader shift in the relationship between government and the internet. Countries like Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia are all pursuing a grand strategy to use international organizations, particularly the U.N., to control the digital future. The Tunisia conference is the latest in a series of efforts to expand the International Telecommunication Union’s mandate beyond its historical function of telecommunications coordination.
Today’s global fight over internet freedom started more than a decade ago. In 2003, China, Russia and other countries initiated a persistent and patient campaign to bring Icann under the control of the United Nations. In 2012 the U.S. led a coalition of 55 countries that refused to sign a global treaty negotiated in Dubai that would have expanded the U.N.’s reach and power to shape how key aspects of the internet operate.
While the U.S. and some of its internet allies rejected the Dubai power grab, 89 other countries voted for more U.N. influence, including an enlarged role in “international Internet governance and for ensuring the stability, security and continuity of the existing Internet and its future development.” That particular resolution was rammed through at 1:30 a.m. on the penultimate night of the conference—forcing the U.S. delegation, of which we were both members—to contest the conference’s legitimacy and boycott its result.
In 2015 a coalition comprised of China and 134 other countries submitted a manifesto to another U.N. meeting insisting that national governments—rather than NGOs, civil society, consumers or business innovators—should dictate the digital future. The bloc declared that “overall authority for Internet-related public policy issues is the sovereign right of States.”
In April Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the leaders of China and India issued a joint communiqué proclaiming “the need to internationalize Internet governance” and enhance the role of the U.N. Momentum, energy and numbers are on their side. As is bureaucratic power: A Chinese government diplomat is today the secretary-general of the U.N.’s International Telecommunication Union.
The first iteration of the privatized internet was conceived and controlled by the nongovernmental global technical community, civil society and the private economy, which unleashed the greatest wave of innovation in world history. The internet of the future, in contrast, may be shaped by foreign governments and the U.N. if countries like Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and China achieve their strategic objective.
America must quickly move beyond the divisive argument about Icann and regain its internet-policy footing. Many more consequential battles over internet freedom loom—conflicts that will shape the digital future. It is time for the U.S. to unify again behind a bipartisan vision and common strategy to safeguard internet freedom for tomorrow.
Mr. McDowell, a former Republican commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. Mr. Goldstein, a Democrat, is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.