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
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.
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.