UN regulation of Internet: 'The threat is real'

Obama administration and industry officials told lawmakers May 31 that the Internet’s freedom is being threatened by proposals to expand international telecommunications regulations to cover the Internet.

“The open Internet has never been at higher risk,” Vinton Cerf, a Google vice president, told a House panel. “The Internet’s success has generated a worrying desire by some countries’ governments to create new international rules that would jeopardize the network’s innovative evolution and its multifaceted success.”

“The threat is real,” said Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Robert McDowell, who warned against “insidious” attempts to expand the United Nations' authority over the Internet.

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The witnesses before the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Communications and Technology Subcommittee were preaching to the choir, whose members were unanimous in denouncing proposals for international regulation, which subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said “just might break the Internet.”

An upcoming U.N. conference to renegotiate the International Telecommunications Regulations has generated bipartisan and seemingly unanimous opposition in the United States to the notion of giving the International Telecommunications Union authority to regulate the Internet. The discussions will be held during the World Conference on International Communications, to be held in Dubai in December.

The ITR, which is a relatively simple high-level statement of telecom policy, has the power of treaty for the 193 ITU member nations that have accepted it. It dates to the 19th century, when it was created to cover the telegraph, and has since been expanded to include telephone and radio. It was last revised in 1988 and was adopted by the United States in 1992.

The United States will be one of the voting nations at the Dubai conference. President Barack Obama is expected to name telecom industry veteran and Harvard Business School lecturer Terry Kramer to head the U.S. delegation, with the rank of ambassador.

Internet regulation today is carried out primarily through nongovernmental bodies such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the Internet Society and other scientific organizations that focus on technical standards and policies.

Proposals for ITR changes to be considered will not be made until August, but some initial proposals called for inclusion of the Internet under the regulations, which McDowell said “at a minimum it creates uncertainty and drives up costs.”

It also could balkanize the global network and open the door for censorship and centralized national controls and surveillance, witnesses said.

Philip Verveer, deputy assistant secretary of state and U.S. coordinator for international communications and information policy, said such a wholesale shift in policy is unlikely.

“That effort has been turned back,” he said, and a majority of countries agree with the United States that regulations for legacy telecom technologies should not be applied to the Internet.

But a number of countries, including Russia, China, Iran, and some Arab states, have proposed controls outside the ITR that would cover how information moves across national networks and how Internet addressing is controlled.

Some proposals are the products of authoritarian regimes that want to shore up their governments, the witnesses said. Others come from differences in understanding of security issues. Russia and China, for example, include the ability to control political dissent in the concept of information security. There also are efforts to impose roaming rates and termination charges for handling international traffic that opponents say would not only drive up user costs but also be impractical with the Internet’s current architecture.

A bipartisan group of representatives has introduced a nonbinding resolution expressing the House’s support for the status quo in Internet regulation, and that it is “the consistent and unequivocal policy of the United States to promote a global Internet free from government control and preserve and advance the successful multi-stakeholder model that governs the Internet today.”


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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