The United Nations Could Seize the Internet, U.S. Officials Warn

Several emerging countries are rallying behind a campaign to have the International Telecommunications Union, the U.N.'s global standards body for telecommunications, declare the Internet a global telecommunications system, U.S. officials testified on Thursday before the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. Led by China, Russia, India and now Egypt, which recently launched its own proposal, such a move would allow state-owned telephone networks to expand into VoIP. It would also give them the opportunity to charge fees for Internet service - and put the Internet at the mercy of international politics.

These countries perceive the Internet as a profit center controlled by private interests, mostly in North America and Europe, according to officials from the U.S. State Department and Federal Communications Commission. They don't yet have the resources to develop Internet technology, but they do control state-owned telephone companies. If the ITU were to make slight alterations in its definitions of certain technologies, U.S. officials told Congress, they may not even have to vote on whether the Internet comes under the ITU's regulatory jurisdiction. They could simply presume that it does - and they may not even need a majority of backers to make that presumption.

Arab Fall

"The Arab States' proposal is very troubling," testified FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, referring to one of the items slated for discussion during the next meeting of the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) this December. It's a meeting designed to reconsider the rules of global telecommunications regulation, and it will literally be the first such meeting since the invention of the World Wide Web.

"[It's] a small definitional change, maybe hoping no one would notice," the Commissioner continued, "that all of a sudden swallows the Internet, that expands the ITU's jurisdiction tremendously."

In his opening statement, McDowell laid out a disturbing strategy, one whose roots lie as far back as 1988. At that time, an international treaty insulated the Internet from any governmental body's regulatory authority, both national and international. During his successful presidential campaign, Russia's Vladimir Putin made the case that such treaties were effectively coerced by Western interests. Now, many U.N. member nations are acknowledging the existence of a "phone number crisis" - the notion that the world has more telephone users than there are telephone numbers to serve them. Mr. Putin has proposed that VoIP technologies are the solution to this crisis, but has argued that member states whose phone systems are presently overflowing won't be able to extend their phone services to the Internet - and thus charge their citizens the usual service fees and taxes for using VoIP service, which Internet treaties presently prohibit - unless and until an international body takes what Putin calls "control."

"The Russian Federation has proposed that the ITU be given jurisdiction over IP addresses, to remedy the phone number shortage. What is left unsaid, however, is that potential ITU jurisdiction over IP addresses would enable it to regulate Internet services and devices with abandon," McDowell continued. "IP addresses are a fundamental and essential component to the inner workings of the Net. Taking their administration away from the bottom-up, non-governmental, multi-stakeholder model and placing it into the hands of international bureaucrats would be a grave mistake."

"Information Security"

Ambassador Philip Verveer, a U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, has more experience with telecommunications law than anyone alive, having served as the Justice Department's lead counsel in the antitrust case that led to the breakup of the Bell System, beginning in 1973. Probably America's most respected expert on international telecommunications law, Verveer warned representatives on Thursday that, should the Internet be subject to an international regulatory body, any one of that body's members could designate itself, shall we say, solely responsible for its content.

"[Russia and China] have a concept that they call 'information security,' the ambassador told Rep. Ed Markey (D - Mass.). "Their concept of information security is both what we would call 'cybersecurity' - the physical protection of their networks - but it goes beyond that to address content that they regard as unwanted. I think as much as anything else, the base motivations that Russia and China have involve regime stability, regime preservation, which for them involves preventing unwanted content from being made widely available in their countries."

While these new superpowers look out for our information security, McDowell outlined the possibility - if not the likelihood - that a newly promoted ITU would institute something called an international universal service fund. 

In response to a question from Rep. Bob Latta (R - Ohio), McDowell pointed out that the companies responsible for attracting the most traffic could end up with the most liability for contributions to that fund - companies like Google (YouTube) and Netflix. "There might be an international mandate for some sort of regulatory regime to impose these charges, and that is a concern. If companies want to enter into a contract in a competitive market, I'm all for that. But we don't need an international regulatory body distorting the marketplace to anyone's disadvantage."

"Precatory Regulation"

According to the Constitution, treaties made between the U.S. and other countries are treated as law of the land. The treaties that make the U.S. a member of the ITU have been treated as law, including current international regulations that protect the state of the Internet today. Rep. Doris Matsui (D - Calif.) asked Verveer to project a worst-case scenario. "What would happen here in this country? Would those resolutions immediately become law? What steps could the U.S. take to limit its participation in the treaty?"

"First, it is conventional, and we certainly will take a very broad reservation from whatever is agreed at the conference," responded Verveer. "Virtually every other country will do the same thing. So you will have countries agreeing that they will abide by the provisions of the treaty unless, for some reason, they won't. When I say 'typically,' the reasons will be extraordinarily broad. That's one thing. The second thing that's very important to understand is, there's no enforcement mechanism associated with this. These are precatory, as are many, many other aspects of international law. So it is not reasonable to assume that, if something really ruinous, for some reason, was to be adopted as a particular regulation, you would see countries against their interests enforcing that regulation, as only the countries would be able to enforce - there's no other way for it to be done.

"So this conference, and all of these activities, are extraordinarily important in terms of establishing norms, in terms of establishing expectations," the ambassador continued, "and in terms of trying to help with respect to both commercial activities and the free flow of information. But they're very, very different from a law that the Congress, for example, might adopt that would be subject to all the juridical enforcement mechanisms that are available."

Speaking as part of a second panel featuring stakeholders outside the U.S. government, Internet Society Senior Public Policy Manager Sally Wentworth repeated her position from last month's ReadWriteWeb interview that the treaty process is inadequate for rule making with respect to a system whose stakeholders are comprised of more than countries.

"It is not simply that the treaty negotiation process excludes non-governmental stakeholders from decision making," said Wentworth, "but that it dramatically limits the extent to which participants from industry and civil society can even be meaningfully heard. In the United States, in contrast, the administrative process contains a wide range of checks and balances, including comment periods and public meetings that collect, record and, in many cases, incorporate public opinion in the rule-making process.  The WCIT lacks any similar structure to bring in expert advice, which makes it prone to making closed-door decisions without the benefit of the widest possible range of external input."

That said, Wentworth later told Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R - Ore.) that the next WCIT conference is only the beginning of a wave of international efforts. "I do think it's important that we put the WCIT in context. The WCIT is an extremely important event in 2012. It is a treaty-making conference. But the discussion of Internet governance will not stop there. There are ongoing discussions within the United Nations framework, in the Commission for Science and Technology for Development, within the International Telecommunications Union, and within the U.N. General Assembly that seek to take on these issues of Internet governance with a great deal of specificity. All of these discussions are things that we at the Internet Society are following carefully, and we think that multi-stakeholder engagement and discussion of these issues over the next several years is going to be extremely important."

ICANN Vice President and Google Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf told Congress he's concerned about any number of efforts by international bodies - the ITU being just one of several - to seize control of the world's Internet policy agenda.

"The process of involvement in the United Nations has one unfortunate property: that it politicizes everything," Cerf told Walden. "All the considerations that are made, whether it's in the ITU or elsewhere, are taken and colored by national interests. As a long-standing participant in the Internet Architecture Board and the Internet Engineering Task Force, where we check our guns at the door, and we have technical discussions about how best to improve the operation of the Internet, to color that with other national disputes which are not relevant to the technology, is a very dangerous precedent. That's one of the reasons I worry so much about the ITU's intervention in this space."