The ITU and Your Internet

On June 20, the House Commerce Committee approved, on a voice vote, House Congressional Resolution 127 regarding actions to preserve and advance the multistakeholder governance model under which the Internet has thrived. If we may start at the end, the resolution, if approved by the full House and the Senate, says it is the sense of Congress that the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information, in consultation with the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and United States Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy, should continue working to implement the position of the United States on Internet governance that clearly articulates the consistent and unequivocal policy of the United States to promote a global Internet free from government control and preserve and advance the successful multistakeholder model that governs the Internet today.

Wow, who could be against that? But wait… what evil in the world could merit an important resolution like this? Well, we’ll need the rest of the story then.

As far back as January, Federal Communications Commission member Robert McDowell was saying that his number one concern is the prospect of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) becoming an international Internet governance body. The ITU is the United Nations' specialzed agency for information and communications technologies (ICTs). It allocates global radio spectrum and satellite orbits, develops the technical standards that ensure networks and technologies seamlessly interconnect, and strives to improve access to ICTs in underserved communities worldwide. Commissioner McDowell said the possibility of ITU control of the Internet could create a divide between the countries that signed on and those that opted out. He said the move was being pushed by countries like China and Russia. On February 21, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Commissioner McDowell in which he warned that “these new regulatory proposals would upend the Internet's flourishing regime, which has been in place since 1988.” He identified six “chilling” prospects that could come from a ITU conference scheduled for December in Dubai:

  1. Subject cyber security and data privacy to international control;
  2. Allow foreign phone companies to charge fees for "international" Internet traffic, perhaps even on a "per-click" basis for certain Web destinations, with the goal of generating revenue for state-owned phone companies and government treasuries;
  3. Impose unprecedented economic regulations such as mandates for rates, terms and conditions for currently unregulated traffic-swapping agreements known as "peering;"
  4. Establish for the first time ITU dominion over important functions of multi-stakeholder Internet governance entities such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the nonprofit entity that coordinates the .com and .org Web addresses of the world;
  5. Subsume under intergovernmental control many functions of the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Society and other multi-stakeholder groups that establish the engineering and technical standards that allow the Internet to work;
  6. Regulate international mobile roaming rates and practices.

This week, L. Gordon Crovitz, also writing commentary for the Wall Street Journal, said that recently-leaked planning documents for the Dubai conference “show that many ITU member states want to use international agreements to regulate the Internet by crowding out bottom-up institutions, imposing charges for international communication, and controlling the content that consumers can access online." After cataloguing the shocking proposals, Crovitz notes that the US delegation filed “some objections here and there -- but politely.” He says the lesson of the Cold War is that “the only way to stop [United Nations] meddling is to wield a big stick.

Recently, the ITU’s Broadband Commission for Digital Development recommended that broadband be treated like other essential utilities, like water, roads and electricity, by "mak[ing] the necessary investments to enable … citizens to participate in and benefit from the digital economy and global innovation -- or risk exclusion." The commission set broadband goals that, by 2015:

  • All countries should have a national broadband plan or strategy or include broadband in their Universal Access/Service Definitions.
  • Entry-level broadband services should be made affordable in developing countries through adequate regulation and market forces (amounting to less than 5% of average monthly income).
  • Forty percent of households in developing countries should have Internet access.
  • Internet user penetration should reach 60% worldwide, 50% in developing countries and 15% in LDCs (least developed countries).

Ah, but this must be part of the plot ‘cause what’s the use of controlling the Internet if not everyone is on it, right? Well, despite the unanimity in the House Commerce Committee and the Wall Street Journal, there’s still some dispute over the real threat posed by the ITU.

Public Knowledge’s Harold Feld believes proposals from the Russian Federation and several Arab states would, for the first time, explicitly embrace the concept that governments have a right to control online communications and disrupt Internet access services. This would reverse the trend of the last few years increasingly finding that such actions violate fundamental human rights – a valuable tool in trying to pressure repressive regimes to stop using such tactics. GigaOm’s Stacey Higginbotham wonders about the potential impact on Network Neutrality.

Carleton University Professor Dwayne Winseck has taken a longer look at the issue in an attempt to “sort out charges that are, in my view, overblown and alarmist versus those that have merit.” His bottom line:

“The proposed changes afoot have been largely strained through the prism of ideology, indiscriminately jumbling together overblown claims with real insights. As far as I can see, it is not the myriad of small changes to one section of the [international telecommunications regulations] after another that constitute the major problem, but rather a set of issues that are mostly clustered in proposals by Russia, and supported by China... The damage such proposals could do to unsettled internet policy issues related to anonymity and online identity, privacy and personal data protection, as well as internet content regulation are enormous and can hardly be exaggerated.”

Cyrus Farivar, writing for ars technica, reported on a speech delivered this week by Hamadoun Touré, the ITU secretary general. Touré said the ITU recognizes all of its member states impose various types of restrictions on freedom of speech. The list includes copyright violations, pornography, defamation and political speech, among others. “Such restrictions are permitted by article 34 of the ITU’s Constitution, which provides that Member States reserve the right to cut off, in accordance with their national law, any private telecommunications which may appear dangerous to the security of the State, or contrary to its laws, to public order or to decency,” he added. “I do not see how WCIT could set barriers to the free flow of information,” Touré concluded. In other words, countries can essentially do whatever they want online -- and they already do.

But he goes on to say:

“As the industry has pointed out, data volumes are increasing much faster than the infrastructure needed to carry it, and there is currently a risk of an infrastructure investment shortfall. The revised [International Telecommunications Regulations, to be discussed at the December [World Conference on International Telecommunications meeting in Dubai] should therefore help to encourage broadband roll-out and investment. They should emphasize the importance of liberalization and privatization, and should recognize the role of the private sector and market-based solutions. At the same time as data volumes are increasing, unit prices are declining, so total revenues for telecommunications operators are potentially at risk. As a result, some have said that there is a need to address the current disconnect between sources of revenue and sources of costs, and to decide upon the most appropriate way to do so.”

In other words, writes Farivar, because revenues (read: profits) are “at risk,” there needs to be a new set of international regulations that will help shore up big telcos.

Writing in The Atlantic, Adam Thierer and Jerry Brito charged Congress, not the ITU, with being the Internet’s biggest threat. The reality is, they write, that Congress increasingly has its paws all over the Internet. Lawmakers and regulators are busier than ever trying to expand the horizons of cyber-control across the board: copyright mandates, cybersecurity rules, privacy regulations, speech controls, and much more. While the congressional resolution is commendable, Congress would do well to heed its own cries of alarm. The most serious threat to Internet freedom is not the hypothetical specter of United Nations control, but the very real creeping cyber-statism at work in the legislatures of the United States and other nations. Thierer and Brito hope Members of Congress will remember their distaste for Internet regulation in the future.

For example, the House Judiciary Committee on June 19 voted 23-11 to reauthorize the FISA Amendments Act including broad electronic eavesdropping powers that largely legalized the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program. The legislation, expiring at year’s end, authorizes the government to electronically eavesdrop on Americans’ phone calls and emails without a probable-cause warrant so long as one of the parties to the communication is outside the United States.

We’ll keep an eye on the progress of House Congressional Resolution 127 and World Conference on International Telecommunications. In the short-term, here’s a quick look at next week’s agenda -- and, as always, we’ll see you in the Headlines.