Syria, WCIT, and the Future of the Internet

War-torn Syria has disappeared from the Internet. This headline certainly caught our eye on November 29. The countrywide Internet outage, accompanied by localized outages of mobile and land phone networks, raised fears among some opposition activists that the government is preparing for a major offensive. In addition, the countrywide blackout crystalizes the fears of many about governments taking control of the Internet. Similar outages happened in Egypt and Libya when entrenched governments faced uprisings.

So, technically, first, here’s what happened in Syria: within the global routing table, all 84 blocks of IP addresses assigned to Syria have gone unreachable. That means that Internet traffic destined for that country is going undelivered, and also that traffic coming from within it cannot get out to the world. At least five networks operating outside Syria, but still operating within Syrian-registered IP address spaces, are still working, and are apparently controlled by India’s Tata Communications. These same networks have some servers running on them that were implicated in an attempt to deliver Trojans and other malware to Syrian activists.

Even as Syrians lost access to the Internet, people outside the country could still browse the Syrian government’s many Web sites for much of the day because they are hosted in foreign countries, including the United States. In July, the Assad government ordered that all official Web sites be hosted inside Syria. But in case of an emergency or an Internet shutdown like the one on Thursday, the government also maintains Web sites based in the United States, Canada and Britain, said Helmi Noman, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab. “This most recent Internet disruption in Syria highlights the issue of Web hosting and how the regime is able to make use of servers outside Syria to promote its message while locally hosted sites are down,” Noman said.

An executive order by President Barack Obama prohibits American companies from providing Web hosting and other services to Syria without obtaining a license from the Treasury Department. State Department officials confirmed that providing the services was a violation of the United States sanctions. “Our policies are designed to assist ordinary citizens who are exercising their fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly and association,” a spokesman, Mark C. Toner, said.

Cloudflare has been monitoring the situation in Syria and has made a few interesting observations. First, pretty much all Internet access in the country is funneled through one point: The state-run, state-controlled Syrian Telecommunications Establishment. The companies that provide this capacity running into the country are PCCW and Turk Telekom as the primary providers, with Telecom Italia and Tata providing additional capacity. There are, Cloudflare notes, four physical cables that bring Internet connectivity into Syria. Three of them are undersea cables that land in the coastal city of Tartus. A fourth comes in from Turkey to the north. Cloudflare’s Matt Prince says it’s unlikely that the cables were physically cut.

Why now? Clearly, the Syrian regime is under more pressure than ever before. Previously, it tended to view the country’s Internet as a tool to not only get its own word out to the wider world, but also to try and spy on and monitor the activities of the rebels and activists. With fighting intensifying in and around the capital and the commercial city of Aleppo, the decision to throw the kill switch might indicate a decision to try to disrupt enemy communications. Or it might mask a seriously aggressive military action that it wants to keep as secret as possible.

The U.S. condemned the Internet outage, calling it an assault on the Syrian people's ability to express themselves. It "speaks to the kind of desperation of the regime as it tries to cling to power," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. She added that the U.S. has provided some 2,000 communications kits to opposition members that are designed to circumvent the Syrian domestic network.

But what we really want to talk about today is the International Telecommunication Union. Back in June, we wrote about The ITU and Your Internet as Congress worked on a resolution to “preserve and advance the multistakeholder governance model under which the Internet has thrived.” The idea was to charge the Obama Administration to 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.

The resolution came because of concerns about the ITU’s World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) which begins on Monday, December 3. Over the past week, we’ve seen a number of articles, op-eds and editorials warning of the possibility that the United Nations will try to take control of the Internet through the ITU gathering. The stated goal of WCIT is to update a global treaty on technical standards needed to, say, connect a telephone call from Tokyo to Timbuktu. The previous conference took place in 1988, when the Internet was in its infancy and telecommunications remained a highly regulated, mostly analog-technology business. Now the Internet is the backbone for worldwide communications and commerce.

The meeting is raising alarms from a broad coalition of critics, including the US, tech giants such as Google and rights groups, concerned that changes could lead to greater efforts to censor Web content and stifle innovation in cyberspace. A lot is at stake in the upcoming negotiations: Observers say some of the proposals put forward by countries for the treaty conference could threaten Internet freedom, encourage online censorship and expand a United Nations agency's authority over the Internet.

Among the issues on the agenda are ideas to battle Internet spam and fraud. But also tucked into more than 1,300 proposals are potential hot-button items that opponents believe could be used by in places such as Iran and China to justify their crackdowns on bloggers and other Web restrictions. Another likely battle when the meeting begins Dec. 3 is over European-backed suggestions to change the pay structure of the Web to force content providers — such as Google, Facebook and others — to kick in an extra fee to reach users across borders. But simply opening the door to greater controls by the ITU raises concern among many people. They worry that countries with tightly controlled cyberspace such as China, Iran and Gulf Arab states will push for additions to the ITU's treaty — such as national security monitoring — that could be used to give legitimacy both to their current efforts to monitor and restrict the Web and to possible future clampdowns. The host United Arab Emirates, for example, sharply tightened Internet laws this month to give authorities wide powers to bring charges for offenses such as insulting the rulers or trying to organize street protests. And, just this week, India has indicated it must revisit enforcement of a similar law.

The ITU's secretary-general, Hamadoun Touré, said in a May speech in Canada that he expected "a light-touch regulatory approach to emerge." The ITU says it has no interest in governing the Internet or restricting expression, but notes that it must update its communications treaty to incorporate the dramatic technological changes that have occurred since the last revisions in 1988. That was before the Internet in the public domain. "For every proposal, there is a counterproposal," said ITU spokeswoman Sarah Parkes. She noted that UN treaties such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights take precedence over any regulations ITU may adopt that could relate to freedom of expression. A treaty proposal needs to have "massive support" from member countries in order to be included in the final version, Parkes argued. "You only need a small amount of dissension in the room for a [proposal] to be dropped," she said. Parkes also rebutted claims that the treaty would change the way the Internet is governed. "There's nothing that's coming up in this conference that touches on Internet governance or proposes changing the current mandate of the organizations that run the Internet," she said.

To help curb fears, the ITU’s membership has adopted a Resolution inviting ITU Member States to refrain from taking any unilateral and/or discriminatory actions that could impede another Member State from accessing public Internet sites and using resources, within the spirit of Article 1 of the Constitution and the WSIS principles. Hamadoun Touré said “the adoption of this Resolution underlines ITU’s commitment to a free and inclusive information society. This should send a strong message to the international community about accusations that ITU’s membership wishes to restrict the freedom of speech. Clearly the opposite is true. It is in this spirit – fostering an Internet whose benefits are open to all – that I would like to head into WCIT-12.”

Leading the US delegation is Terry Kramer who received his appointment in late June 2012 as U.S. Head of Delegation for the World Conference on International Telecommunications 2012 (WCIT-12). Kramer has been accorded the personal rank of ambassador by President Obama to serve in this role. Ambassador Kramer has had a 25-year career in international telecommunications, mainly as an executive at Vodafone. The US delegation has 123 members including a mix of Obama administration officials and industry representatives from Google, Verizon, AT&T, Cisco, Microsoft and Facebook. Advocacy groups and trade organizations also have representatives on the delegation.

US officials and American companies have sounded an alarm about proposals that would expand the scope of the ITU treaty so it shifts from regulating telecommunications networks to regulating the exchange of information on the Internet. The US has argued that the scope of the treaty should stay confined to telecommunications networks and not the Internet.

Ambassador Kramer has said that countries like China and Iran are looking to propose language that could lead to online censorship and government monitoring of Web traffic. These countries say the proposals are intended to protect computer networks from online threats like cyberattacks and spam and to crack down on child pornography, but the methods they suggest to accomplish these ends would allow them to peer into "what information is flowing on the Internet," he said.

The US and Canada offered a joint proposal this week asking that the conference deal first with proposals to change the definition of telecommunications or who the treaties apply to before getting down to the details of any revisions. Dealing with those "threshold questions" about the scope of the treaties is a crucial first step, the two countries argue. They propose that there be a plenary session to deal with any changes to the preamble or Article 1 of the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs). "If we can resolve those threshold, definitional issues first, it will clarify the terms of the negotiations for the rest of the conference," said Ambassador Kramer. He has said the conference needs to steer clear of the Internet and that the US would not be a party to expansion of the ITRs, though he conceded it was time to tee up questions about how broadband is dealt with going forward.

The European Union will also oppose attempts to increase regulation of the Internet. “Some non-EU countries have tabled proposals for a significant increase in the scope of the treaty and the regulatory burden on operators, including Internet service providers,” according to the political body representing 27 European nations. “The EU believes that there is no justification for such proposals and is concerned about the potentially negative impact on innovation and costs.”

Analysts say the real business of the conference is business. “The far bigger issue — largely obscured by this discussion — are proposals that are more likely to succeed that envision changing the way we pay for Internet services,” Michael Geist, an Internet law professor at the University of Ottawa, said. Sec General Touré says one of the main objectives of the conference is to spread Internet access to more of the four and a half billion people around the world who still do not use it.

But from Wall Street to Silicon Valley (and San Francisco) to London, the alarms continue to ring with a similar tune: Save the Internet from the United Nations.

Back in June, we noted that 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. On one of the most controversial Internet regulations, network neutrality, we’ve seen lots of activity in November.

Reps. Henry Waxman (D-CA), Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and Edward Markey (D-MA) wrote a letter to their colleagues on November 16, calling attention to a "troubling" constitutional argument Verizon has made in its bid to overturn network neutrality regulations. In its lawsuit, Verizon claimed that it has a First Amendment right to decide what traffic to carry on its network just as a newspaper editor chooses what articles to publish. The lawmakers warned that Congress's power to regulate the communications industry would be severely restricted if the court accepts Verizon's claim that the network neutrality regulations violate its First Amendment free speech rights. "Although this First Amendment issue is being raised by Verizon in the context of the Open Internet Order, there is no apparent limit to the company's claim," the lawmakers wrote. "If the court accepts Verizon's argument, the role of Congress in enacting communications policy through power granted by the Commerce Clause — including efforts to protect consumers and promote competition in contexts far removed from the Open Internet rules themselves — could be radically undermined." In their letter, the lawmakers warned that overturning the network neutrality rules could undermine the success of the Internet. "This incredible economic success story is made possible by the fact that the Internet has always been an open platform where anyone with a good idea can connect to consumers across the globe and compete on a level playing field for their business," they wrote.

The lawmakers pointed to a brief defense of the rules filed by former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps and other former government officials. In that brief, the officials said Verizon's lawsuit fails to "state any valid or even seriously plausible constitutional claim." They argued that Verizon is only carrying the speech of others and not expressing any message of its own. "There is nothing inherently expressive about transmitting others’ data packets, at a subscriber’s direction, over the Internet," the officials wrote. At a Capitol Hill event this week, Hundt dismissed Verizon’s view that it is somehow similar to a newspaper. “Verizon is like paper, not a newspaper,” he said. “This idea that the Internet can be closed, or blocked, or managed by private parties is the exact opposite of America’s foreign policy,” Hundt said, pointing to the Obama administration's Internet freedom advocacy. “The Internet is a common medium.” Telecom networks have a long history of dealing with public interest expectations, and courts have ruled that even privately owned companies like malls are limited in how they can restrict speech on their property. “Verizon’s arguments fail as a matter of constitutional principle: that transmission enables someone else’s constitutionally-protected expression does not mean that it is itself speech,” the officials wrote in its amicus brief. Additionally, they argued, if the courts were to accept Verizon’s arguments, “Congress’s historic power to take and authorize measures to preserve openness of communication networks would be unsettled and dramatically narrowed.”

We also saw news this week that Rep Darrell Issa (R-CA) is proposing a moratorium on new Internet regulations for the next two years. The bill, named The Internet American Moratorium Act (IAMA), is currently just a "discussion draft" — which means that it's got a long way to go before even being considered for a vote by Congress. The bill's provisions are extremely broad, and would pretty much put a stop to all Internet lawmaking:

SEC. 3. MORATORIUM ON NEW LAWS, REGULATIONS, OR RULES. It is resolved in the House of Representatives and Senate that they shall not pass any new legislation for a period of 2 years from the date of enactment of this Act that would require individuals or corporations engaged in activities on the Internet to meet additional requirements or activities. After 90 days of passage of this Act no Department or Agency of the United States shall publish new rules or regulations, or finalize or otherwise enforce or give lawful effect to draft rules or regulations affecting the Internet until a period of at least 2 years from the enactment of this legislation has elapsed.

A blanket ban on Internet legislation probably isn't a good thing, writes T.C. Sottek in The Verge, even if it gives Congress a little more time to educate itself on internet issues: the law would require both Congress and federal agencies, like the FCC for instance, to put a halt on internet regulation. That would mean the FCC's critically received Open Internet regulations would have to sit still for another two years (which might not be a problem for Republicans, like Issa, who oppose net neutrality). It would also mean that the government would be unable to make new demands of companies like Facebook and Google to ensure the privacy of their customers through new regulations.

Rep Issa’s proposal comes as Verizon and AT&T are telling policymakers that they “need less regulation, not more. A lighter government hand, they say, will mean more competition and yield a better deal for consumers,” as David Cay Johnston wrote this week in the New York Times. In practice, though, deregulation has meant new regulations — written by corporations and for corporations — that have often thwarted competition and run roughshod over the customer. Johnston concludes, “The remedy for these anti-consumer practices is straightforward: bring back real competition to the telecom industry.”

You’re likely to see much more on the ITU meeting [for additional background see Fast Facts on United States Submitting Initial Proposals to World Telecom Conference and Preview of the World Conference on International Telecommunications] for the next two weeks as delegations gather in Dubai and we’ll keep you up-to-date in Headlines. But the agenda is full with nomination hearings and privacy workshops and more so stay tuned.

By Kevin Taglang.