Q&A With ITU Ambassador Terry Kramer: It's All About Internet Freedom

U.S. Ambassador Terry Kramer is the head of the United States' delegation to the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). That means he's the man debating and discussing critical Internet issues on behalf of America's more than 300 million citizens. 

After day five of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) conference in Dubai, Kramer, whose background includes 25 years of experience in the telecommunications sector, spoke to ReadWrite about the major issues at stake, the debate process and a potential positive outcome to a meeting many consider the death knell of the Internet.

Kramer worries that some countries are trying to co-opt the conference from advancing telecom issues to regulating Internet communications under that umbrella. If the organization's terminology is changed to allow governments the same designations as traditional telecom providers, many observers fear that could be the end of a free and open Internet.

What's At Stake

ReadWrite: Terminology is a big issue. What might happen if the term "operating agency" was changed to include large telecom operators?

Terry Kramer: The fundamental issue here is whether the Internet is included in the review or not. All this terminology - "recognized operating agencies" versus "operating agencies" - have to do with what type of organizations are subject to these regulations. "Recognized operating agencies" (are) traditional providers of telecommunication services. "Operating agencies" is a much broader term. It includes private networks which would include a variety of Internet players, cloud computing players, ham radio operators. It would also include government networks. Whether the Internet is included or not, is what's being discussed, and it's creating a lot of debate and issue. The conference was set up to just focus on telecom sectors. And what's happened is in proposals such as the one that's come from Russia, a variety of countries in the Arab states, Africa, etc., what they're saying is there's convergence today and the Internet should be part of all this. 

RW: What's the threat there?

Kramer: The problem is that people have ulterior motives when they want to include the Internet. It's a very slippery slope that starts allowing governments, potentially, to be able to see what things people are looking at. All the traffic routing allows them to see what's going on. Now individual countries can do whatever they want for their national sovereignty. We don't want something going into a global treaty that validates practices that we don't agree with. So we put forward a proposal a little over a week ago that said the foundation issue that we see here is dealing with this issue of whether the Internet is included or not. If we can't get comfort on that, then the proceedings, the discussions, are going to be very difficult because every single issue we negotiate is going to have the risk of the Internet being mixed in there. 

RW: What is the downside of having the Internet looped into that "operating agency" term?

Kramer: There's an economic downside and it's also a free speech downside. You're basically opening the door for the government to get into the business of managing the Internet. Once governments do that, you have to say 'what are these governments like, and what will they do,' and the concern from a democracy/free speech standpoint is we don't want to validate a practice of governments being able to look at what people are seeing and doing. People should be free on the Internet, the Internet itself should be free - free flow of information - without risk of any type of censorship.

The separate issue is a commercial one. If the Internet gets mixed in here, there have been some proposals that have put forth what's called "sending parties pay regimes," which basically say if you're a content developer or an app developer and you have an app or content you want to send internationally, you'd have to pay a fee to have that traffic delivered. Networks abroad, whether they be in Africa, Europe, wherever, they would have the right to charge a fee for receiving that traffic and delivering it to the end user. The big worry is you'll have a lot of players that won't send traffic abroad... From a commercial standpoint, it would have a chilling effect on the whole Internet base.

The Big Issues

RW: What's your take on the deep-packet inspection issue?

Kramer: Deep packet inspection was designed to look at how networks are performing. But what's happened is that there's a clear capability of deep packet inspection to go down to an individual user basis. Instead of aggregating traffic and anonymizing it and saying 'now I know my network's overloaded here or it's not here,' it's actually going down and saying 'I know Adam is using this amount of capacity and by the way, Adam is using YouTube clips, Adam's on Amazon.' And all of a sudden it opens the door to monitor it. It violates peoples' privacy rights. 

RW: Any other major issues on the table: Fraud and misuse, quality of service, charging rates?

Kramer: The big ones are the Internet being included or not, that's the first and most fundamental.

The "sending party pays regime" we talked about is number two. That's an issue of are content players are going to get charged.

The third one is cybersecurity. Countries have said, "Hey, our networks are being attacked," and we agree, that's a legitimate issue. But we fundamentally don't agree that one organization, one government, the ITU, owns exclusive rights to dealing with that issue. Multi-stake holder organizations, the IFTF and WC3, a lot of these independent organizations that are open to other countries, they're the best ones to deal with Internet issues. They've got technical expertise, they're agile, they're open to others, they're not a government-based organization. 

RW: So then the U.S. stance would be to keep the status quo of what we had before, of ICANN and those other organizations being the regulators? 

Kramer: I don't know if I would call it status quo. I would call it supporting multi-stakeholder organizations and continuing to support the growth. 

RW: Those other issues you mentioned, do we have a date when we think those are goig to be resolved?

Kramer: We don't. It could end up that it's a package that gets reviewed all together. And that would be my guess. But again we won't know until later next week.  

Looking Forward

RW: You're the head of the U.S. delegation. Does that mean you're the only person on behalf of the U.S. that's voting on these issues?

Kramer: We have a U.S. delegation of 120 people. Roughly 50 people in the U.S. government, another 40 that are industry, another 10 that are civil society. So at the end of the day I'm responsible for representing the U.S. to other nations in negotiating. Now I obviously work with a lot of different government agencies. The Commerce Department, the State Department, the FCC, they all have interests, so they all submit feedback. 

RW: For every consensus ruling on an issue, even if it's something "bad" that happens, it still has to come back to each country for legislatures to basically vote on, correct? 

Kramer: That's right. Each country has to decide what they're going to implement. This is not the end of the world in terms of the final things that get decided. The most important thing is the values that this sets. The reason we're taking this thing so seriously is even though countries can do what they want, to have something in a document that says governments have the right to review traffic, to monitor (or) charge for traffic being delivered, would set a terrible precedent. 

RW: What fundamental changes to how the Internet works do you see coming out of this conference?

Kramer: I think number one, if we can get to a point and say the Internet's not part of this, which has been the goal all along, the goal that Hamadoun Touré, the secretary general had said. We need to talk about the advancement of international communications, not the Internet communications. If that happened, that's a good outcome, because we have advanced on the communications side. We've also been able to reach agreement in that area and keep the Internet out. I think having an explicit discussion of the criticality of the Internet needing to be free. Not governed, not regulated, not controlled by governments. That would be a fundamental breakthrough. 

RW: And if that doesn't happen?

Kramer: It's going to be an interesting set of discussions going forward because you've got very different camps. Ones that want to control the Internet, and ones that want to say "let it be free." And it'll be an interesting set of discussions afterwards... 

RW: So what do you think is going to happen?

Kramer: I don't know. I really don't know. Everybody's very motivated to try to get to a successful outcome. One of the things I think that should be considered seriously here is: Can there be a higher level agreement here about what we're trying to accomplish, advancing communications and not get into Internet discussions. Because that's all the controversy. Keeping this high-level, the importance of the communications area, that would be a great outcome. 

 

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