Could we see, beginning in Dubai in December, the end of the Internet as we know it? The 193 member states making up the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) are scheduled to meet next month to review the treaty that has formed the binding international framework for International Telecommunication Regulations for almost 25 years. While the scale of change is likely to be more modest, for some – most notably the United States (US) government and the powerful players it represents – any reform is seen as potentially disastrous. Read why we think the US government and its private affiliates should be seriously questioned, and why a reform is necessary.
The US is at war with the ITU, and despite the behind-the-scenes nature of the issues at the heart of the dispute, it is a war being waged in plain sight. Whether representing the government or private sector, each US anti-ITU speaker takes the floor to recite the same arguments. If the ITU assumes the lead on Internet governance, the web will never be free again. To prevent the disaster of an online world subject to a draconian form of censorship and control, Netizens should stand united and defend their freedom against an approaching UN plague. According to these white knights, the Internet requires no central control, no authority. The true heir to the counter-culture of the 1960s, it is a decentralized system, bottom-up, and rightfully beyond the reach of any governmental hands. ‘Multi-stakeholder-ism’ is the rule, indeed religion. Why change a status quo that works (almost) perfectly well? Notwithstanding the simple attraction of an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ pitch, such a narrative demands some concerted rethinking. Let's first listen to what the US camp is angrily saying.
Back in May, a resolution passed by the US Congress expressed full opposition to international regulation of the Internet by the ITU. In his introductory remarks at a hearing of national experts, Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman, Greg Walden, insisted that “weakening the multi-stakeholder model threatens the Internet” – a model that had “served the Internet and the world so well.” Walden went on to remind his audience that the ITU was “originally formed in 1865 to govern international regulations of the telegraph,” and that even when the organization adopted the International Telecommunications Regulations in Melbourne in 1988, world telecommunications were still “dominated by voice telephony.” After insisting on the end-effect of that treaty – “transferring money to foreign companies run by governments” – in the process avoiding the fact that the agreement had paved the way for an integrated, open and regulated network of national telecommunications providers for the Internet, Walden finally delivered his bottom line: it would be inappropriate to ask an organization such as the ITU – a prehistoric relic – to regulate the vibrant and technologically diverse Internet. “The ITU ignores the technology of the Internet and the fact that [it] doesn’t work with national boundaries. Such international regulation would soon become unmanageable.” Are you smelling any 'mauvaise foi'?
All were presented as good reasons for the US to reject any international regulatory regime involving governments. Immediately after Walden finished, however, came the killer-quote from Russian President, Vladimir Putin, about December’s World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) in Dubai: “international control over the Internet is one of the stated goals.” The UN, ITU, Russia, China, governmental authority, censorship – Congress seemed to have a Cold War revival on its hands. “When it comes to regulating the Internet, the answer is niet!” The witnesses that followed favored a less theatrical approach, grounded in clear expressions of US national interest. “What is at stake here is the creation of 231,000 jobs.” Members of Congress learned about “endangering net neutrality,” and “balkanizing the Internet.” But of all the arguments thrown in the face of the UN, its affiliates and members, one deserved special attention: the notion that the US government’s handover of control over the Internet to the private sector represented “one of the great success stories of American history.” A total irony, as we shall see.
Before going into this fascinating story, however, let’s first meet the witnesses present at that May hearing, which included Ambassador David A Gross – former US Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy turned lobbyist – who attended on behalf of the ‘WCIT Ad Hoc Working Group,’ an industry-led coalition counting AT&T, Cisco, Comcast, Google, Intel, Microsoft, News Corporation, Oracle, Telefonica, Time Warner Cable, Verisign and Verizon amongst its members. In effect, an informal grouping representing most major players with an interest in the Internet. No doubt, the friends of Ambassador Gross had sufficient resources to get their point across to the assembled congressional audience. With the deft skill of a seasoned diplomat, Gross first acknowledged that “the ITU… is extremely important to US national interests,” citing the “vital” role it played in spectrum policy, satellite management, telecommunications standards development, and as a cooperative forum for international experts from around the world. He also praised the leadership of ITU Secretary-General, Hamadoun Touré, in seeking to advance global uptake of broadband technology. While Gross went on to refer to – unspecified – countries seeking to use the ITU and its treaty-based authority for – unexplained – counter-productive purposes, he refrained from unnecessarily attacking or criticizing the ITU itself.
Another individual present was Vinton Cerf, who as a PhD student in the late 1960s witnessed the birth of some of the key concepts in computer science, and lived with many of the founding fathers of the Internet. Cerf attended the hearing as Vice President and ‘Chief Internet Evangelist’ at Google. While a number of industry counterparts have joined the ITU as non-voting members – as is their right – Google has never applied to do so, nor responded to the repeated invitations it has received from the organization. Cerf expressed his deep concern ahead of WCIT-12, but also recognized the challenge faced by developing countries to share in the “$4.2 trillion growth opportunity” referred to by the Boston Consulting Group in a March report.
“The very real concerns about the damage that ITU regulation could do to the Internet should not minimize the existing concerns that developing nations have as they try to keep up with the 21st century economy. We can and should solve problems of access and education without compromising the Internet’s essential open and decentralized character.” With approximately $8 trillion exchanging hands each year via e-commerce, this opportunity will be lost to developing countries if they do not cope with associated infrastructure, maintenance and investment costs. It is also a concern at the forefront of Touré’s speeches, himself a citizen of Mali. In economic terms, a May report from the McKinsey Global Institute noted that the Internet is integral to economic development and job creation, generating over 10 percent of GDP growth in the past 15 years in the countries under review. “With more than two billion users worldwide, the Internet still has enormous capacity for growth,” concluded Cerf.
Interestingly, many of the arguments presented by key witnesses at the hearing could also be found a few weeks later in a paper published by the Stanford Technology Law Review. The article’s author, Patrick Ryan, is a Policy Counsel at Google, as well as an Adjunct Professor in the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Interdisciplinary Telecommunications Program. He was kind enough to thank Cerf and other Google employees for assistance in writing the article, though maintained the content did not reflect the official views of Google. Why then, did Ryan quote the assessment of an unnamed colleague that the ITU’s regulatory proposals made “the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) – which threatened to grant new censorship and blocking powers to the US government – look like the equivalent of a bad hair day”? Such a view is certainly not grounded in fact. Ryan then turned to a sympathetic voice from the US government: “more to the point, Federal Communications Commissioner Robert McDowell recently described… the dangers of ITU involvement in Internet regulation, noting that a topdown, centralized, international regulatory overlay is antithetical to the architecture of the Net.” The alignment of rhetoric between Google, Stanford and senior government regulators gives one cause to pause.
What can be said with confidence is that private and public stakeholders in the US are strongly opposed to international regulation of the Internet. This raises the question of whether there is a legitimate basis to such reservations. Could the ITU be manipulated by rogue states or repressive regimes? Could the ITU exceed its own mandate? Could the ITU act without taking into account civil society stakeholders? Could the ITU provide a platform for top-down Internet censorship? None of these questions can be answered unequivocally in the affirmative. So what, then, is the reality behind all of the ardent speeches and public declarations from a US-led coalition of governmental and industrial players?
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(Photo © DR)