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Issue Brief #3785 on United Nations

November 28, 2012

Resist the Increasing Role of the United Nations in Internet Governance

By and

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a United Nations specialized agency, will host the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, December 3–14. The purpose of this conference is to reach consensus among the 193 ITU member states on updating the 1988 International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs) governing international telecommunications.

Some countries have proposed granting the ITU more authority over the Internet and making other changes purportedly for such goals as enhancing cybersecurity, reducing costs for developing-country consumers, and increasing investment by telecommunications providers. However, many of these seemingly benign proposals could undermine the Internet freedoms that are essential to spurring economic development and protecting human rights. The U.S. should oppose these efforts.

The WCIT Agenda

The ITU, founded in 1865 as the International Telegraph Union, has long served as the main multilateral coordination body for telecommunications regulators around the world. Until recently, the ITU’s work was relatively noncontroversial, focused primarily on setting technical standards and administering the framework for international allocations of revenues in a world dominated by monopoly telephone carriers, often government owned.

In the past 25 years, however, the communications world has been turned upside down. The Internet and wireless technologies have vastly expanded access to information and markets, undercutting the power of domestic phone companies—and often the governments behind them—through increased private competition and rapid innovation. The ITU has struggled to define its role in this new environment.

Based on unofficial leaked reports, the proposals being considered for discussion at the WCIT are a hodge-podge of technocratic-sounding changes in the current ITRs. While many are ambiguous, there is good reason for concern. Among them:

  • A proposal by a coalition of Arab states would require national governments to “undertake appropriate measures, individually or in cooperation with other Member States,” to protect “confidence and security” in the Internet. A related measure would require that governments be informed of the exact routing of traffic. Going further, Russia would require networks to identify subscribers when delivering traffic. The sponsoring states argue that these powers would help them fight cybercrime, but they could also be used for censorship and political suppression.[1]
  • A Russian proposal would give member states equal rights in the allocation of domain names, potentially challenging the role of the U.S.-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.
  • A proposal by a group of European telecom network operators states that, in splitting revenues for international traffic, they should “where appropriate” use the principle of “sender pays.” This would be a departure from current practice, in which each network generally pays for its own costs. The net effect would be to shift initial costs to content providers such as eBay and Amazon. The idea is controversial, but the European providers argue that it should be an option. However, the language they offer arguably makes it mandatory.[2]

This is only a small sample of the recommendations that will be considered in Dubai. As of September, 124 documents containing some 450 separate recommendations had been submitted to the ITU for consideration at the WCIT.[3] Due to the opaque nature of the ITU’s planning process, the content of many of these proposals is not publicly known. Much of what is known, in fact, comes from leaked documents posted at a site called Wcitleaks.org.

Individually, many of these proposals are troubling. Together, they point to a more fundamental problem. The ITU, led by a vocal cadre of member states, is trying to expand its ambit from facilitating relationships, cooperation, and smooth interoperability among domestic telephone companies to global Internet rule maker. At a time when competition should be making it less relevant, it is expanding its turf. At best, this is unnecessary, as the Internet is doing quite well under the current framework. At worst, the expansion will allow the U.N.—parent organization of the ITU—to stifle the Web.

The U.S. Position

Concern over the ITU has inspired strong bipartisan opposition in the U.S. In August, the House of Representatives unanimously passed (414–0) H. Con. Res. 127, introduced by Representative Mary Bono Mack (R–CA), which endorsed the current multi-stakeholder governance model and urged the Administration to “clearly articulate…the consistent and unequivocal policy of the United States to promote a global Internet free from government control.”

Senator Marco Rubio (R–FL) introduced a similar version of this resolution (S. Con. Res. 50) that passed the Senate by unanimous consent on September 22.

The Obama Administration has also made strong statements in defense of the current multi-stakeholder system and opposition to the more worrisome proposals on the agenda:

[T]he United States will not support proposals that would increase the exercise of control over Internet governance or content. The United States will oppose efforts to broaden the scope of the ITRs to empower any censorship of content or impede the free flow of information and ideas.[4]

What the U.S. Should Do

The U.S. priority at the WCIT should be to maintain the broad, light regulatory regime that has facilitated Internet and mobile technology innovation and proliferation. Although the stated goal of the WCIT is to arrive at a consensus agreement that all ITU member states can support, the ITU itself anticipates that this might not be possible and, in a leaked document, outlined several possible outcomes in which consensus is not reached.

Retaining the current ITRs is preferable to balkanization. The U.S. should insist that a consensus be required in Dubai and, if that proves impossible, suggest that further negotiation is preferable to a fractured agreement. After all, the Internet has demonstrably prospered under the current system, and the proposals for older communications technologies are mostly cosmetic.

Having established this framework, the U.S. should then be careful not to let the momentum of negotiation lead it to accept undue interference with Internet freedom. The U.S. should articulate clear red lines and, if they are crossed, be willing to walk away. It should state unequivocally that it will not sign or ratify any new agreement that:

  • Justifies or facilitates censorship or repression,
  • Expands the authority of the ITU over the Internet,
  • Mandates transfers from developed to developing countries, or
  • Interferes with the private negotiation of compensation for carriers.

Worth Defending

No system of Internet governance is perfect, including the current system, which many countries resent because of a perceived dominance by the U.S. However, the strong growth of the Internet in recent decades and the economic growth resulting from that development show that the laissez-faire arrangement of the current system should be defended. The U.S. must articulate clear red lines and, if they are crossed, be willing to walk away. Protecting the vitality and viability of the Internet is preferable to signing on to a compromise agreement that violates key principles and undercuts the framework that has contributed to its success.

Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, and James L. Gattuso is Senior Research Fellow in Regulatory Policy in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

Show references in this report

[1]Center for Democracy and Technology, “Security Proposals to the ITU Could Create More Problems, Not Solutions,” September 6, 2012, https://www.cdt.org/files/pdfs/Cybersecurity_ITU_WCIT_Proposals.pdf (accessed November 27, 2012).

[2]International Telecommunication Union, “Revision of the International Telecommunications Regulations—Proposals for High Level Principles to Be Introduced in the ITRs,” June 6, 2012, http://files.wcitleaks.org/public/ETNO%20C109.pdf (accessed November 27, 2012).

[3]ITU, “World Conference on International Telecommunications,” slideshow, http://www.slideshare.net/ITU/myth-busting-presentation#btnPrevious (accessed November 27, 2012).

[4]U.S. Department of State, “U.S. Contributions to the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12),” August 3, 2012, http://www.state.gov/e/eb/rls/othr/telecom/196031.htm (accessed November 27, 2012).

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