By Jonah Force Hill
On Thursday, May 31, 2012, in the Rayburn Office Building of the House of Representatives, a panel comprising some of America’s leading Internet industry and policy experts offered an ominous warning to U.S. lawmakers about future of the Internet.
“The open Internet has never been at higher risk than it is now,” testified Vint Cerf, one of the ‘fathers of the Internet’ and Google’s self-described “Chief Internet Evangelist.” “A new international battle is brewing,” he asserted, “a battle that will determine the future of the Internet.”
Robert McDowell, an FCC Commissioner, offered an even more disturbing warning, suggesting that what happens in the coming months may well “determine the fate of the Internet…and whether political liberty can proliferate.”
The apocalyptic tone of the experts’ testimonies reflects the extraordinary concern with which at least some members of Internet community are viewing the risks associated with a forthcoming meeting of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the U.N. affiliated specialized agency responsible for international telecommunications regulation.
The December ITU meeting in Dubai – which organizers have entitled the World Conference on Information Technology, or WCIT-12 – will see representatives of the more than 190 ITU member-states come together to renegotiate a fairly obscure treaty known as the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs), a 24-year-old accord which delineates much of the ITU’s rule-making authority over telecommunications. Significantly, however, the ITRs do not currently include regulation of the Internet within their purview, since they have not been revised since the beginning of the Internet era.
While the ITU, the ITRs and WCIT-12 may be unknown to most people outside of the Internet policy community, some of those within that community, like Cerf and McDowell, believe that there are enormous matters at stake in Dubai. They fear that an alliance of Internet-restricting nations, including Russia, China and others, plan to use WCIT-12 and the ITRs renegotiation process to insert Internet-specific language into the treaty, a change that would have the effect of granting to the ITU, and in turn the United Nations, the power to act as the Internet’s global regulator.
Currently, the Internet is regulated by a patchwork of independent public and private so-called ‘multi-stakeholder’ organizations that share responsibility for the Internet’s core governance functions. These groups include the Internet Engineering Task Force (which helps coordinate the design of Internet technical standards) and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Named and Numbers (which manages domain names).
Not all nations are happy with this somewhat informal regulatory structure. Many governments have argued, with some justification, that the present regulatory environment unfairly serves American business and ideological interests. Moreover, they assert that the “multi-stakeholder” model of governance is unresponsive to their state interests and that it allows for a degree of freedom fundamentally inconsistent with the social norms of some non-Western cultures.
For years, China, Russia, Iran and many Arab states have tried to shift power away from these multi-stakeholder organizations that today regulate the Internet, and to place increased authority within the ITU, believing that the U.N. affiliate, with its state-centric one-country-one-vote decision making structure, would be more representative of their interests and more responsive to their influence.
In June 2011, for instance, Vladimir Putin explicitly stated that Russia and its allies were committed to “establishing international control over the Internet” through the ITU. In September, China, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan submitted to the U.N. General Assembly a proposal for an “International Code of Conduct for Information Security” with the goal of establishing a global treaty “standardizing the behavior of countries concerning information and cyberspace.”
In the face of this ongoing challenge to the status quo, open Internet advocates are warning that Internet-restricting nations see an opportunity in WCIT-12 and the ITRs renegotiation process finally to strip power away from the multi-stakeholder Internet regulatory organizations. Such an effort, in the view many open Internet advocates, portends an existential threat to the Internet as we know it.
In response, the U.S. government and its allies have been waging a concerted diplomatic campaign to persuade those nations attending WCIT-12 that have still not decided whether to support the proposals to vote against any treaty language that would empower the ITU with increased regulatory authority, arguing that the top-down, bureaucratic ITU is ill-suited to respond to the quickly evolving Internet environment.
Civil society groups, such as the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Internet Society, have been pursuing their own campaigns, trying to bring more mainstream public attention WCIT-12 and what they perceive to be the risks associated with it.
The atmosphere surrounding WCIT-12 has become so overwrought over the past few months that the U.S Congress has introduced a resolution calling for the U.S. government to block all proposals that “would justify under international law increased government control over the Internet and would reject current multi-stakeholder model that has enabled the Internet to flourish.”
Based solely upon of the tenor with which the U.S. government, its allies, and some open Internet advocates globally have been condemning WCIT-12, it would be hard for those unfamiliar with the debate not to conclude that December in Dubai will be a decisive moment for the future of Internet, and perhaps—if the vote favors granting Internet regulatory powers to the ITU—even a death-blow for Internet freedom globally.
But is all the alarm justified?
Internet governance expert and author of several influential books on the subject, Syracuse Professor Milton Mueller, for one, is not so troubled. In a series of essays rebutting some of the central concerns of WCIT-12 critics, Mueller argues that the December meeting will not lead to an “ITU takeover” over the Internet and in fact has little to do with Internet governance or Internet freedom at all.
WCIT-12, he contends, is strictly about big business.
According to Mueller, the central objective for China, Russia and many governments representing the developing world at WCIT-12 is not to give the ITU power to take over the responsibilities of the current regulatory bodies, but to change the way Internet data is paid for across international borders.
“It is not in the slightest about taking over the IETF or ICANN,” Mueller maintains. “[It is] a continuation of long running battles over the way the Internet has disrupted traditional telecom businesses and markets.”
He writes that international telecom providers, particularly in the developing world, see the existing Internet data payment system as unfairly weighted against them. And since many of these providers are government-owned monopolies, it makes sense that those governments would seek out international treaties like the ITRs as means to reform the existing system in their favor.
Dwayne Winsek, Professor at Carleton University in Canada and a historian of the telecom industry has written a similarly extensive critique of the “UN-is-taking-over-the-Internet-at-WCIT” speculation. Winsek largely agrees with Mueller, but further argues that China, Russia and other states interested in censorship don’t need an international agreement to restrict their citizen’s freedom on the Internet; they are already doing it fairly effectively.
Indeed both scholars are far less concerned about the threat of an “ITU takeover” than they are about a European telecoms association proposal also to be considered in Dubai that would put pressure on content providers such as Google and Netflix to offset the costs of delivering Internet traffic to end-users.
The Secretary General of the ITU, Hamadoun Toure, led a special press briefing on June 22, during which he sought “to set the record straight” about what he sees as a mischaracterization of the ITU’s ambitions. Toure insisted that the goal of WCIT-12 is not fundamentally to change the nature of the Internet, but rather to come up with “very light touch” regulations aimed at encouraging competition and innovation, bringing down costs of Internet access, and addressing security and privacy issues.
In light of Mueller and Winsek’s skepticism, and Toure’s public assurances, should we be concerned as Cerf and McDowell?
One problem is that the state-to-state discussions leading up to WCIT-12 have been held largely behind closed doors. Some proposals appear to have been leaked, largely through the Wikileaks-style site, WCITleaks.org, but on the whole the process has been largely opaque. It is hard to know what is going on and what the future negotiators at WCIT in fact intend to propose.
Skeptics like Mueller and Winsek may indeed be right when they say that an ITU takeover is unlikely. But even if the likelihood is small, both experts would surely still warn that if Russia, China and others are able to push the ITRs as far as they might like, the effects could be catastrophic.
If the WCIT-12 doomsayers’ worst fears were realized, and the U.N. affiliated agency were in fact awarded ultimate authority over Internet regulation, the United States and its allies would undoubtedly withdraw, at least in part, from the ITRs.
The effects of this withdrawal are difficult to predict with any certainty, but it is not unrealistic to imagine that such a divergence could cleave the Internet along regulatory lines, with China, Russia and other nations following the rules and the technological requirements of the ITU as required by the ITRs, and the U.S. and its allies attempting to maintain the regulatory status-quo through the existing multi-stakeholder system.
Yet, even if the immediate results of Dubai were less disruptive than Cerf and McDowell have warned they could be, and the ITU were only awarded slightly more regulatory power, WCIT-12 could still represent the beginning of a process by which the world is divided into two—or perhaps many—Internet alliances, that evolve in such a way that, over time, they become like largely unintelligible languages.
A bi-polar (or multi-polar) Internet world would surely undermine one of the most extraordinary advantages of the current unified Internet, that to a very great extent all Internet users, irrespective of location, have the opportunity to share the same experience, and the same information.
This “balkanization” of the Internet may indeed already be happening. China in particular, through the deployment of its “Great Firewall of China,” has already shown that its government has the will and the technical capacity to create an Internet environment that is in many ways independent of the wider global Net. Yet, if WCIT-12 were to go in the direction of an empowered ITU, this process would only be accelerated.
The ITR renegotiation may in fact be an existential threat, or it may be a tempest in a teapot; either way, anyone concerned about the future of a unified and free Internet should at least be paying attention.
Jonah Force Hill is a technology and international affairs consultant and a former Belfer Center IGA Fellow. He is the author of Internet Fragmentation: Highlighting the Major Technical, Governance and Diplomatic Challenges for US Policy Makers.