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November 29, 2012

Knowing When to Walk Away: The U.N. and Internet Freedom

By and

Delegates from 193 countries will gather Dec. 3 in the city-state of Dubai to consider plans for changing how the Internet is run.

Hosted by the International Telecommunication Union, an arm of the United Nations, the conference agenda includes 450 proposals for changes in international communications regulations. Some of these proposals are benign. But others threaten to undermine the Internet freedoms that are essential to spurring economic growth and protecting human rights.

The United States must vigorously oppose these and other efforts to expand the governmental control of in cyberspace.

The ITU was hardly established to regulate the Internet. Founded in 1865 as the International Telegraph Union, ITU has long served as the main coordination body for telecommunications regulators around the world.

In a world of monopoly telephone carriers, which was the case for most of the ITU's history, this work was relatively non-controversial. It involved setting technical standards and establishing the framework for international allocations of revenues.

In the last 25 years, however, the communications world has been turned upside down. Led by the private sector, the Internet and wireless technologies have vastly expanded access to information and to markets, undercutting the formerly monopoly local phone companies, and often the governments behind them.

The ITU has struggled to maintain a role in this new environment. It currently operates under a set of rules adopted in 1988 before the Internet was widely available. As a result, the Internet is largely ungoverned under those rules and has flourished in this laissez faire environment.

Nonetheless, the Internet makes a tempting target for an agency looking for new turf. The Dubai conference - formally known as the "World Conference on International Telecommunications," or "WCIT" - is to reach consensus among ITU member states on updating the 1988 rules, which were last updated in 1988. The conference has been widely seen as an opportunity to formalize ITU's role in Internet policy.

Based on unofficial leaked reports, the 450 proposals offered by member states for consideration at the Dec. 3 conference cover a hodge-podge of issues. Some are merely cosmetic rephrasing of existing text, others address technical issues of narrow significance. But there are also many that raise significant concerns.

Among the most worrisome:

Establishing a "right" of national governments to know the exact routing of traffic, and to identify subscribers when delivering traffic. Supporters argue that this would help them fight cybercrime, but the powers could also be used for censorship and political suppression.

Recognizing an equal right for every country in the allocation of domain names, upsetting the current, non-political Internet governance system.

Calling on national governments to mandate a "sender pays" system for Internet payments, putting government in the role of deciding how Internet service is paid for, displacing the current system of voluntarily negotiated agreements.

To take effect, each recommendation would need to be enacted into law by the appropriate national government. But there is no shortage of authoritarian regimes that would gladly accept U.N. endorsement of their policies. Moreover, there's no assurance that non-binding standards won't later become binding.

And, as troubling as the proposals are individually, the broader concern is ITU's effort, aided by some of its member states, to expand its authority from the technical job of facilitating technical interactions to the far broader one of setting the global rules for the Internet. At a time when competition should be making the ITU irrelevant, it is expanding its turf.

At best, this is unnecessary - the Internet is doing quite well without the help of this 19th-century organization. At worst, the expansion could be the first step down a path that would give the ITU, and through it the United Nations, power to stifle the Web.

So far the United States has stood firm against such intervention by international bureaucrats. The Obama administration has said it "will not support proposals that would increase the exercise of control over Internet governance or content."

This position was buttressed in June by a unanimous resolution in the House of Representatives condemning increased government control over the Internet. (The Senate has not yet voted on the issue). Yet, as the ITU itself said in a recent planning document, 'it is possible the U.S. position will soften, especially during the conference."

The Obama administration, having articulated the right stance, must be careful not to let pressure to reach an agreement lead it to accept undue interference with Internet freedom. The U.S. must articulate clear red-lines and, should they be crossed, be willing to walk away from Dubai.

- Brett Schaefer is the Jay Kingham fellow in international regulatory affairs at The Heritage Foundation. James Gattuso is Heritage's senior research fellow in regulatory policy.

First moved via McClatchy News Tribune wire.

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