Beware UN regulation of the Internet, panel warns

The Internet has flourished in a non-regulatory environment, and imposing international controls on the global network would choke the type of innovation that has allowed it to thrive, a panel of government and industry officials said May 30.

“The administration firmly supports the position that the United Nations is not the place for the day-to-day technical operation of the Internet,” said Richard Beaird, the State Department’s senior deputy coordinator for communications and information policy.

Proposals that would give the U.N.’s International Telecommunications Union authority to regulate the Internet would risk balkanizing it and stifling innovation that has made it a driver of global economic growth, a panel of speakers said at a discussion hosted in Washington by the Free State Foundation, a free-market think tank.

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There were no speakers in favor of international regulation.

The discussion on Internet governance came as the United States is preparing to name a delegation to the U.N. World Conference on International Communications. The conference, to be held in Dubai in December, is expected to address proposals that the ITU be given a role in Internet governance. The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology has scheduled a hearing on the issue for May 31.

The Internet was developed primarily through U.S. government programs and was commercialized in the 1990s. It was built on consensus-based technical standards and the closest thing to a governing body today is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which oversees the Internet’s Domain Name System under a contract with the Commerce Department.

The Internet’s rapid adoption created a revolution in communications and it now underpins much of the world’s commerce and economic development. The Internet itself now is undergoing a revolution of its own with the expansion of mobile connectivity through handheld devices, which Jacquelyn Ruff, Verizon’s vice president of international public policy and regulatory affairs, called the key trend online. Mobile devices now account for 73 percent of Internet connections, said Federal Communications Commissioner Robert McDowell.

Because its technology is significantly different from earlier mass communications media, the Internet has grown outside of traditional regulation. Some nations are arguing for greater controls on it, a subject that will be addressed in Dubai. The first round of government proposals to be considered at the conference are due in August.

“Many of the proposals would attack the principles” of consensus-based standards and unfettered connectivity on which the Internet is based, said Richard Whitt, Google’s managing counsel for public policy.

The current regulatory framework for international communications is the ITU’s International Telecommunications Regulations (ITR), a treaty whose roots go back to an 1875 agreement on the telegraph and which has since been expanded to incorporated radio. It was last revised in 1988. One concern of the U.S. government is that the ITR would be expanded to include the Internet.

“That was a different world in 1988,” Beaird said. “In the world of broadband Internet, it would be counterproductive to impose the practices of the past.”

Ruff said that imposing legacy telecom regulations on the Internet would stifle innovation that has fueled its growth, and that national gateways for Internet traffic would fragment the Internet.

The desire of some governments to have greater control over their own communications, coupled with concerns that ICANN is a tool for U.S. government control of the Internet, have led for calls to move regulation into the ITU or some other U.N. organization. But both industry and government speakers defended the consensus-building, multi-stakeholder model of ICANN.

“Any concerns about ICANN should not be used as a pretext to end the multi-stakeholder model,” McDowell said. He called for “regulatory restraint in Internet governance” and avoiding “the temptation to tamper with the Internet.”

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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