The notion of the United Nations making the rules and governing the Internet should send shivers down the spine of anyone who uses a cellphone, laptop or search engine -- not to mention anyone who earns a living in the tech industry.
An 11-day, closed-door World Conference on International Telecommunications opens Monday in Dubai, and a 95-person U.S. delegation, including representatives from Silicon Valley companies such as Google, Cisco Systems and Facebook, will be fighting attempts to change how the Internet is governed.
Wish them luck. U.N. officials deny that censorship is on the agenda, but China, Russia, Iran and other control-oriented governments have historically either made statements to the contrary or had alarming proposals leaked.
The United States would not be bound by anything emerging from Dubai. But the Internet is used to communicate and, by global companies, to conduct business around the world. Any restrictions on fundamental freedoms will affect business and individual users.
This may sound like an esoteric Silicon Valley debate, but it isn't.
It's time to use every tool available to speak up. Valley leaders should be calling on political contacts. And users of Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and other social media sites should create a buzz to flex the Internet's political muscle. In other words, it is time to make some noise.
On top of censorship worries, some Third World nations are talking of charging a fee for Internet traffic to raise money for technological improvements. That's a horrible idea. As San Jose Rep. Zoe Lofgren says, the more freedom and connections the Internet has, the more valuable it is.
Last February, U.S. leadership on this crucial issue was in disarray. But thanks in part to the Bay Area congressional delegation, the U.S. team headed for Dubai is armed with a bipartisan joint resolution from Congress demanding that the conference impose no new regulation on the Internet.
The European Union passed a similar joint resolution, setting up a potential showdown between Western nations against repressive regimes.
The Internet now has more than 2 billion users -- and no central governing body. Instead, it is overseen by a collection of largely U.S.-based nonprofit groups. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), headquartered in Los Angeles, plays a large role in maintaining stable and orderly operation.
All these groups roughly adhere to the goal of the global organization, the Internet Society, to "assure the open development, evolution and use of the Internet for the benefit of all people throughout the world."
If the U.N.'s World Conference on International Telecommunications plans to discuss regulation, it should first open its sessions to the public. Put that at the top of the priority list for Silicon Valley leaders winging to Dubai.
The Internet may well be the greatest advance of all time in worldwide communication, and people have a right to know how it could change.