Congress Seeks to Head Off UN Interference in Internet Governance
The House Energy and Commerce Committee unanimously approved a bill this month that establishes a multistakeholder model of global internet governance as the official policy of the U.S.
The bill was not considered in a vacuum. Congress wants to put the U.S. firmly on record opposing a plan by a little-known UN agency, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), to vastly expand the ability of individual countries to censor the internet, and have a much greater say in naming domains, assigning numbers, and directing internet traffic in their own countries.
It's not quite the " UN takeover of the internet" conspiracy theory that some have been pushing. But neither is it as benign and non-controversial as the conspiracy debunkers claim.
What is at stake here is money. Money and access to the internet in countries that might not welcome companies like Google, Netflix, and even social network platforms like Twitter and Tumblr. The ITU wants to grant individual countries much greater control over internet access points which would allow them to levy hefty fees on content providers like Google. If they charge too much, Google and other content providers might decide it isn't worth it and leave a gaping hole in the internet for that country.
It is important to realize that there must be some international governance of the internet, much as there are agreements related to other telecommunications like phone and wireless. But what the ITU is proposing goes far beyond any normal agreements between internet companies and host governments. Deep packet inspection, for one, would allow governments to spy on their citizens with the right technology. It would also open the door for countries to levy fees on content providers based on individual usage -- charging more for greater bandwidth usage for example.
Led by a bloc of African countries, and facilitated by Iran, non-binding language was eased into a new telecommunications treaty last December in Dubai that outraged the West and set the stage for a confrontation in October of 2014, when the ITU will meet to rewrite its constitution and elect a new secretary general.
The Internet is a central element of the infrastructure of the information economy, and recognizes that all governments should have an equal role and responsibility for international Internet governance, the security and stability of the Internet, and its future development.
FCC Chair Robert McDowell was blunt in his warning to Congress about the October confab:
McDowell said the meeting this fall in South Korea will be “literally a constitutional convention” to “define the ITU’s mission for years to come. Its constitution will be rewritten and a new Secretary General will be elected. This scenario poses both a threat and an opportunity for Internet freedom. The outcome of this massive treaty negotiation is uncertain, but the momentum favors those pushing for more Internet regulation.”
"In sum," McDowell told Congress bluntly, "the dramatic encroachments on Internet freedom secured in Dubai will serve as a stepping stone to more international regulation of the Internet in the very near future."
What the ITU rules potentially mean is a vastly more complicated, crowded, confusing, and perhaps unworkable internet. Not a takeover. A gigantic, unmanageable bureaucratic screw-up, slowing commerce and interfering in the free flow of ideas and speech.
Some analysts believe that the ITU's goal is to supplant the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), substituting control by individual countries over domain naming and assigning numbers and protocols. The Dubai conference ended with 55 countries refusing to sign the agreement, but 89 countries did and it is unclear what next steps -- if any -- can be taken by the ITU to implement the accord.
That's what makes the ITU conference in 2014 so important. If the agency's constitution is rewritten to grant it more powers to regulate the internet -- a near certainty -- all sorts of mischief might follow.
What kinds of mischief? There will be an interim conference prior to the Plenipotentiary Conference next month, and the ITU secretary general has released a report outlining what he wants to accomplish at the meeting:
On January 11, 2013, ITU's Secretary-General Hamadoun Toure released the fourth and final ITU/WTPF-13 report outlining groundwork for Internet governance—and internet regulatory topics— at the February 6-8 and May 14-16 meetings.
The ITU/WTPF-13 report explicitly includes the creation of "Global Principles for the governance and use of the Internet," and resolving issues pertaining to "use of Internet resources for purposes that are inconsistent with international peace, stability and security."
It also redefines the multi-stakeholder definition of Internet governance as currently insufficient because it does not grant governments—now defined by ITU as underrepresented multi-stakeholders—"sufficient" Internet governance power.
Just what is meant by the "use of internet resources that are inconsistent with international peace, stability and security"? I can guarantee you that statement means one thing in China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia and another in Great Britain, France, and the U.S. For one thing, it is an open invitation for governments to censor anything that "disrespects" Islam. For another, it invites censoring political thought at odds with the ruling powers.
Chairman McDowell concluded his congressional testimony with this warning:
And so, I ask you in the strongest terms possible, to take action and take action now.
Two years hence, let us not look back at this moment and lament how we did not do enough.
We have but one chance.
Let us tell the world that we will be resolute and stand strong for Internet freedom. All nations should join us.
Congress -- and the rest of us -- would do well to take his warning to heart.