Not-So-Hidden Agendas Threaten the ITU “Kumbaya” Moment

One of the things that has drawn Public Knowledge to be an active participant in the effort to ensure that the United Nations doesn’t become an Internet regulatory or governance body is the fact that nearly every civil society group, policymaker and industry representative is on the same page.  

As I have said previously, it is one of those very rare “kumbaya” moments in communications policy debates where there is consensus - when the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) meets at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai this December, its jurisdiction should not expand to encompass Internet policymaking.

Unfortunately, some US policymakers and industry players have tried to leverage this harmonious moment into an opportunity to gain advantage on a number of other, mostly controversial policy matters.  These not so-hidden agendas not only divert attention from US Government’s main goal at the WCIT, but even worse, threaten to fracture the unity among industry, policymakers and civil society – a fissure that will almost certainly be noticed and highlighted by those looking to expand the ITU’s power. 

Here are the side agendas that have reared their heads over the past several months:

1. The Black Helicopter Agenda.  Some policymakers are using the WCIT as an opportunity to beat on the United Nations generally and China and Russia specifically.  And while it is true that China and Russia (along with some repressive Arab states) have made several very worrisome proposals that would allow the ITU to have control over free expression, they are not the sole supporters of expanding the ITU’s power.  A number of countries, particularly developing countries in the Global South, have concerns over  US and US industry control over Internet governance.  And others, particularly African countries, believe that an expanded ITU role over Internet traffic will somehow result in increased economic benefits. 

Framing this issue as nothing more than a fight with China and Russia minimizes the legitimate concerns of these other countries, many of which might be our allies.  And it gives credence to the folks who say we are all being hyperbolic, there is nothing to worry about and we should just move on.  Better than dismiss or ignore the legitimate concerns of our potential allies, we should validate them and commit to address them, albeit in a forum other than the ITU.

2. The “Multistakeholder Processes” is Always Good All the Time Agenda.  There is much to commend multistakeholder governance in a fast-changing Internet economy, particularly for Internet governance and technical issues.  But those pushing the expansion of multistakeholder processes to all manner of Internet policy issues rarely mention their main shortcoming – civil society and developing countries rarely have the resources to participate fully.  Until multistakeholder bodies provide all stakeholders with an opportunity for effective participation, those left out will try to find other forums (like the ITU) to find relief. 

In a domestic policy context, particularly in matters where there are clear winners and losers, multistakeholder bodies (with representation from all stakeholders) may be useful to determine where there are areas of agreement and disagreement and to make recommendations.  But in those cases, government still needs to serve as the ultimate decisionmaker and enforcer of whatever norms or regulations result. 

3.  The “We must not regulate the Internet the way we regulate the telephone network” (or Title II) agenda.  Not content with their victory over the so-called “nuclear option” of the FCC classifying Internet access as a Title II telecommunications service in the net neutrality context, some telecom industry representatives and their friends in Congress have decided to use the consensus over the ITU to revisit both the Title II debate and net neutrality itself.  They argue that if you don’t want international government control over the Internet, you shouldn’t want domestic “control” over the Internet either. 

Of course, as we said ad nauseum in the open Internet debate, net neutrality (and Title II) speaks to Internet access and not the content, applications and services that make up the Internet itself.  Regardless, and as Harold so eloquently states, one can advocate against the ITU expanding its powers and still support a specific policy that is being proposed at the ITU.   If that were not the case, net neutrality opponents would be duty-bound to support ITU regulation of the Internet because all of the proposals with regard to an open Internet have been ones that would undermine net neutrality by permitting prioritization and quality of service (QoS) guarantees.

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With December and the WCIT approaching rapidly, everyone who is united in the belief that the ITU should not expand its powers should keep their eyes on the prize.  Using the WCIT as a stalking horse for other agendas threatens to derail the progress the US Government, industry and civil society have already made to persuade our allies to join with us to preserve an open Internet free of centralized control.  

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