Are the days of hands-off Internet policies numbered?

The Internet will be a major topic of discussion when world leaders convene late this year to review and revise the 24-year-old regulations governing international telecommunications.

When the International Telecommunications Regulations were drafted in 1988, the dominant type of traffic was voice and the regulations dealt primarily with telephony, the systems that linked telephones and peripheral devices such as fax machines. Today telephony is only one component of the Internet, and traffic consists of everything from text and images to streaming voice and video.

Who will be responsible for running, protecting and governing the Internet could be decided at the World Conference on International Telecommunications to be held this December in Dubai.

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“There is an increasing amount of attention” on how the Internet should be governed and what the role of government and international bodies should be, said David Gross, who represented the Bush administration on a variety of international telecom issues with the International Telecommunications Union and at the United Nations.

The regulatory approach to the Internet so far has been largely hands-off, which has been successful. But “there are real problems to be discussed,” Gross said Feb. 1 in a talk for the Hudson Institute’s Center on Economics of the Internet. The sides are forming now on how those problems will be addressed, he said. “December is not that long from now.”

Some developing nations, such as India, would like to see more responsibilities given to international bodies such as the U.N.’s ITU, and nations such as China and Russia, concerned with the Internet’s effect on domestic politics, advocate a greater degree of control over what have traditionally been open pipes.

The United States, which now has the lead in administering the Internet through its agreement with the independent Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, has favored an open, cooperative approach.

“The U.S. position has been the expectation, willingness and desire that the entire world would come along for the ride,” Gross said.

The Internet grew up in the United States and spread unexpectedly from its military and academic roots to become a global communications and business infrastructure. The Defense Department ceded control to the civilian Commerce Department, which in turn handed responsibility for managing Internet addresses and domain names to ICANN, which attempts to create consensus policies with all stakeholders.

The approach to the Internet so far has been more of administration than governance, with day-to-day operational responsibility residing primarily with commercial enterprises that provide the capacity, access and content. There is no central authority, and regimes that have tried to block or control the Internet have been largely unsuccessful.

Despite the success of this model, many parties are dissatisfied and are calling for either more or less control.

The International Telecommunications Regulations were created by the ITU, a U.N. treaty organization whose rules have the effect of international law. When they were created in 1988, a primary issue was the role government should play in enabling telecommunications in developing countries.

“It was not clear until the very end that there would be an agreement,” Gross said.

A major issue at December’s conference will be if and how the rules should be applied to the Internet. Some would like to see numbering and address functions taken from ICANN and given to ITU, a change Gross said is unlikely to happen.

He said the issue should not be whether governments should have a role in Internet governance but rather what that role should be. Excluding governments could spur unilateral action by some countries that could fragment what is now a global Internet. New regulations should embrace the current multi-stakeholder model that includes government, nongovernmental organizations, private industry and academia in the process, he said.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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