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As Countries Meet Over New Telco Regulations, Worry Grows Among Internet Activists

BY Nick Judd and Miranda Neubauer | Monday, December 3 2012

Fully operational: Will WCIT spell the end of the ad-hoc Internet? Photo: Michael Wifall

Open-Internet advocates group blasted the International Telecommunications Union Monday as the U.N. agency opens several days of discussion on changes to international telecommunications regulations that might make it part of the structure of Internet governance.

Advocacy group Fight for the Future on Monday launched "Stop the Internet Coup", an appeal to prevent "a panel of governments, giant corporations, and dictatorships" from having "absolute power over the entire Internet, deciding in secret what you can see & do online." This is the latest round of public worrying over the World Conference on International Telecommunications, beginning today in Dubai, in which ITU member nations renegotiate the terms of telecommunications regulations for the first time since 1988. Other anti-ITU advocacy includes a Google-backed Twitter initiative and a make-your-own video campaign from the Mozilla Foundation. Fight for the Future repeats claims about what the ITU itself wants to do that the ITU's secretary-general, Hamadoun Touré, has already called "ridiculous."

While advocates paint WCIT as the potential death knell of Internet freedom, experts suggest the real conversation in Dubai will be about the possibility of a fee structure on international Internet traffic — which could be described as a global attack on net neutrality and worthy of serious debate all on its own.

The advocates' pitch, then, might at first sound like some combination of the Agenda 21 conspiracy theorists and the beardo libertarian open-source crowd after a long night snorting bath salts. Fight for the Future's Tiffiniy Cheng says all the fuss is warranted because they're not attacking the ITU of today. Instead, they're trying to defend the Internet from the monster she says the U.N. regulatory agency could become.

The International Telecommunications Union's member countries will consider proposed changes to a series of regulations that govern things like international satellite and landline phone traffic. These regulations don't encroach very far into the workings of the Internet, but that might change over the next couple of days. Member countries like Russia and China are bringing proposals that would afford governments increased control over content on the Internet within their borders and have proposed changes that would shift functional control of the Internet within the grasp of their states, putting free-speech advocates ill at ease. Countries forwarded along their proposals to the ITU ahead of the conclave, many of which remain secret, and the union's attempts to appease civil society institutions who have criticized the union's lack of transparency have not been successful.

"Only governments have a vote at the ITU," Google says in a statement, "and some of them are trying to use a closed-door meeting in December to increase regulation online. Some proposals could permit governments to censor legitimate speech -- or even cut off Internet access altogether. Although the ITU has helped the world manage radio spectrum and telephone networks, it is the wrong place to make decisions about the future of the Internet."

Those proposals certainly are up for debate. But U.S. Ambassador Philip Verveer, coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy at the State Department, says they have little chance of passing.

"As a formal matter, like all U.N. organizations, it's one country one vote," Verveer told techPresident. "But in fact that's not what happens. The ITU operates on the basis of consensus. It assiduously avoids taking votes," he said.

The chairman of the conference, Mohammed Al Ghanim, is director general of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of the United Arab Emirates and is "very widely respected," Verveer said. Al Ghanim will be responsible for taking the temperature of conference delegates on each measure.

"If there are strong objections from very many countries, something cannot be adopted," Verveer explained.

The U.S. is of the position that strong objections will emerge against any proposal to shift day-to-day Internet governance away from the bottom-up, ad-hoc network of institutions and individuals that keep things going now.

More likely — and also opposed by the American delegation — is the institution of telco-style termination fees abroad. Under these fee structures, Google and other Western companies might have to pay Internet service providers — like, say, the state-run telcos that enjoy monopolies in some Arab and African states — in other countries to deliver their content. Goodbye, net neutrality: to reach growing audiences — and to work with content creators — in the developing world, companies like YouTube could be asked to pay ISPs for the use of their bandwidth.

For instance, the Canadian Internet legal scholar Michael Geist notes that the European Telecommunications Network Operators Association, a group of 41 telecom companies, "has proposed a new sender pay model for Internet traffic so that its members receive 'fair compensation.'"

Verveer told techPresident that the U.S. delegation is opposed to this type of scheme, too.

ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré told Reuters that due to these divergences of opinion, the ITU's final agreement will likely resemble a general agreement to cooperate more and share best practices, such as on how to combat child pornography.

"From Dubai, what I personally expect is to see some kind of principles saying cyberspace is a global phenomenon and it can only have global responses," Touré told Reuters. "I just intend to put down some key principles there that will lay the seeds for something in the future."

Seeds, to Fight for the Future and its allies, of the creeping ivy that might tear down the Internet as we know it. As soon as the ITU gets a say in the principles of the Internet, their thinking goes, the problems begin: A machine kept going by an adhocracy of engineers and users operating in the open, they say, must suddenly tolerate the grinding gears of a bureaucracy where decisions are made by political appointees reaching consensus behind closed doors.

"Who gets to set policy, and where these discussions happen, is an on-going debate in Internet governance," Emma Llanso, of the Center for Democracy and Technology, wrote in a message Cheng forwarded to techPresident, "but a move to give ITU explicit oversight, even in the form of 'establishing a framework' for discussion or formally encouraging/supporting Member State cooperation, would begin the process of having the ITU and Member State governments set the policy agenda in a venue that is government-driven and government-controlled."

In contrast, she wrote, the current system "acknowledges that sound Internet policy and governance is developed through the participation not of governments alone, but of technical experts, human rights advocates, industry, academics, and users."

That even applies to technology standards, Llanso wrote. There are proposals on the table that would give study groups within the International Telecommunications Union a voice equal to that of the Internet Engineering Task Force and the World Wide Web Consortium, the organizations that now develop the standards that govern everything from what tags are used in HTML code to the right protocol for managing the network data packets at the core of Internet communications. When IETF or W3C issue a standard, it is public long before it is even seriously considered for adoption, and its use is voluntary. In contrast, the ITU could conceivably walk away from Dubai having required member states to adopt standards developed inside its bureaucratic walls with minimal public input, Llanso wrote.

The Internet's creation myth frames it as the brainchild of a few innovative engineers and scientists, a combination of ingenuity and a government that offered funding support but little interference. As WCIT continues in Dubai, Cheng and other Internet advocates hope other countries are as willing to keep their hands off as the United States seems to be.

"We're working to make sure any closed agency made up of governments shouldn't have a legitimate governance voice over the internet," Cheng wrote to techPresident in an email. "If ITU, which is governed by government bureacrats, were to have international authority over questions of internet regulations, then future proposals that are legitimized by the ITU could bring cover to dictatorships and wealthy telcos who agree with the future proposals."

This post has been updated.