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Battle Brewing Over International Internet Regulation

Next week’s ITU meeting in Dubai pits the United States against many others

3 min read
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Image: Getty Images


30 November 2012—If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That’s how officials in a number of countries, particularly the United States, feel about growing efforts to change the way the Internet operates. The latest push comes from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which hopes to update a global treaty on telephone regulations so it includes the Net. The treaty was initially signed in 1988, when telephony was a highly regulated, mostly analog technology business, and the Internet was young. Since then, the Internet has become the backbone for global communications and commerce.

The 12-day World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), which the ITU is hosting in Dubai next week, will officially bring together more than 190 countries to review the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITR) [PDF] agreed to in Melbourne, Australia, 25 years ago. But it’s the “unofficial” agenda of the conference that has been causing all the ruckus in the run-up to the event—specifically, who will control the Internet, both politically and commercially.

Although the treaty proposals remain secret, many have surfaced on the Web and in the blogosphere. One of them, reportedly from Russia, calls for placing the Internet under the control of a global authority such as the ITU, the 147-year old organization that became a United Nations agency in 1947. The ITU’s secretary general, Hamodoun Touré, has spent the past several weeks trying to convince governments that his organization isn’t vying for the job. But it hasn’t been easy, because many believe the ITU is keen to find a new role in a world now dominated by data packets. Russia has been arguing for years that the United States should have less control over the Internet’s operation. Many Internet companies, especially those in North America and the European Union, are worried about the possibility of a shift from the status quo.

“We want to preserve the basic model moving ahead because we feel it has served mankind well, with its underlying principles that allow for a free and open exchange of information and knowledge,” says Markus Kummer, vice president for public policy at the Geneva-based Internet Society, which coordinates the committees and task forces that maintain the Internet’s core protocols. “It has been a driver of innovation and economic and social development outside of government control and interference.”

The Sender Must Pay

Equally contentious—at least in the eyes of the 100-person U.S. delegation representing many of the world’s largest Internet companies—is a proposal for a “sender-pay model” for Internet traffic. The proposal, submitted by the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association (ETNOA), calls for content providers to pay tolls to local Internet service providers to reach local users requesting their content. (Today, receivers pay only an access fee to their local Internet service provider.) The ETNOA plan, which would replace the current peer model, is seen as a move by facilities-based service providers to generate revenue on the backs of high-volume, “over-the-top" content providers like Google and Facebook. In a defensive move, Google has mounted the Take Action campaign on its website, encouraging users to sign a petition “to keep the Internet free and open.” 


Another key focus in Dubai will be cybersecurity. Some countries, including Russia, want to see this issue regulated in the treaty. Many other countries, including the United States, don’t want it discussed. In an interview earlier this week, Terry Kramer, head of the U.S. delegation, told IEEE Spectrum: “We need to protect our networks, but our solutions are going to come from liberalized markets and from multistakeholder organizations.”

The United States may, however, have offensive as well as defensive motives. “The U.S. has fought cybersecurity tooth and nail, and it’s not clear why,” says ITU counselor Richard Hill. “Some academics believe regulations could restrict the ability of the U.S. to wage cyberwar.”

A Weak Treaty or None at All

Censorship proposals are on the table, too. Today, any country has the right to control its own cyberspace. But some countries, including China, would like to see some wording on censorship in a global treaty.

The conference will address a string of other traditional telecom issues as well, such as international roaming for mobile phones and accessibility. And some of the language in the 1988 treaty that assumes phone companies are nationally owned needs to be updated. But the conference has also become a magnet for lofty ideals in need of a home.

“One of the ideas floating around is to establish an international framework for the Internet that would include high-level principles, such as human rights, freedom of expression, openness, and innovation friendliness—but without any norms or reference points,” says Jeanette Hofmann, an Internet governance researcher at the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society, in Berlin.

But the end result could be even more nebulous. Some experts believe the new treaty could, in the end, be totally devoid of all Internet-related issues. “The U.S is such an important player—you really can’t make an agreement against the opposition of a country that has all the major content providers,” says Hofmann.

Techwise Conversations host Steven Cherry interviewed U.S. Ambassador Terry Kramer before he left for Dubai.

About the Author

John Blau, who lives in Düsseldorf, Germany, has been contributing to IEEE Spectrum for 20 years. In February 2012 he reported on a move in Europe to provide professional passports for engineers.


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