The International Telecom Union (ITU), founded in the 19th century, last updated its regulations or ITRs in 1988 and clearly has a lot of catching up to do. It has traditionally focused on standards for telegraph and analog voice communications, allocating global electromagnetic radio spectrum and satellite orbits by multilateral treaty. The ITU also defines basic principles for the provision and operation of cross-border international telecommunications networks. Now that the dynamic global Internet has been layered on top of those underlying transport networks, things get exponentially more complicated for a regulator. IP addresses, for example, are far less associated with specific geography or hardware than telephone numbers. And online apps and content are quite unlike a simple phone conversation or data transmission. But so far, the global open Internet actually works well for its end users as long as governments stay out of the way, and don’t try to regulate in favor of their own telecom providers or preferred content and services.
ITU has 193 member states and is a UN specialized agency that grants access primarily or exclusively to governments to attend even its non-standards-related meetings. Only governments have votes, and many now want some control in the Internet space. The stated purpose of the upcoming meeting in December in Dubai is to revise 24 year old ITRs. Bad proposals from various countries and telecom organizations are being circulated and campaigned for in advance of the year-end meeting, and most diplomats don’t understand the technology of how the global Internet works.
We in the U.S. and Canada along with others in Europe and Asia, like Japan, want to preserve the non-governmental multi-stakeholder, private-sector-based Internet governance model. That model includes ICANN, which is U.S. headquartered, and the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), and other collaborative processes which are fundamental to the continued development of the Internet. Global free flow of data, essential to the commerce of ideas and of trade, clearly will not work where the regulation of services or charges results in distortions to the Internet’s inbuilt mechanisms to automatically ensure traffic flows with maximum efficiency and lowest cost.
But certain nations from several continents (Russia, China, India, Iran and Brazil) have called for international restrictions on how people use the Internet, some even advocating broad censorship regimes that are masquerading as national security and/or data privacy regulations.
And a group of European network providers (ETNO) has just proposed new regulations going beyond the “best efforts” Internet to mandate fees for “quality of service” interconnection among IP networks. Telecoms, some of which are state-owned enterprises, claim they need to bill content providers in addition to their Internet access end users in order to finance domestic broadband infrastructure. Many foreign nations resent the fact that their own citizens are so enamored of American platforms like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, not to mention our video entertainment content and music. Skype and other VOIP services, meanwhile, are disrupting revenue streams from more traditional voice and data telecommunications business models. There is no economic or other justification for the ITU to involve itself in the private agreements that govern the provision of Internet interconnection services as these are clearly working well given rapidly expanding access to a well functioning Internet around the world. Countries such as the U.S. and the Netherlands that value access to the open Internet have simply prohibited local telecom service providers from discriminating in favor of or against data traffic streams with new toll taking schemes.
While the upcoming WCIT conference is getting a lot of visibility, WCIT is really only one ‘chapter’ in a long struggle by totalitarian countries to establish greater state control over the Internet in order to regulate speech by their citizens. And this struggle is sometimes aided by other nations more interested in economic control or subsidies for their own telecoms.
The U.S. and the European Union generally recognize the legitimate concerns of developing nations around cybersecurity or fraud for example, and can provide resources to help them work toward solutions short of international regulation. We should tolerate only the absolute minimum necessary regulation of what the people of the world can “say, buy or find” online, and we must discipline ourselves to resist the temptation regulate the Internet against social ills. Child porn seems to be the only criminal activity that is universally condemned. Everything else is either a slippery slope or a controversial can of worms or both.
We must work with like-minded nations and the multinational private sector to discourage ITU regulation of the Internet NOT because we in the U.S. don’t want it, but because it would fracture the unitary worldwide Internet and hurt economic growth and innovation in all nations of the world.
Another profound reason not to involve the ITU in the Internet: it is now the world’s trading platform and there are efforts underway at the WTO and in regional and bilateral trade arrangements to ensure that the Internet’s value as a commercial platform are enhanced. Governments should not allow the expansion of ITRs into the Internet unless it is clear that doing so will not run counter to existing WTO obligations or limit their freedom of action to conclude trading arrangements that will benefit their domestic economies.