Civil Society is Key to the Debate on International Control Over the Internet

Civil society will be the critical player in a policy debate that has dominated recent tech news - whether the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) will be given the power by its Member States to regulate internet access and the internet itself.   Despite the fact that the US Government and US industry have vocally opposed this outcome, it is US civil society that has the biggest role to play to ensure that the Internet continues to be open and decentralized.

The ITU is a United Nations agency focused on setting international standards related to information and communications technologies – and whose stated mission is to connect all the world’s people “wherever they live and whatever their means.”  Among other things, the ITU allocates global radio spectrum, and coordinates the assignment of satellite orbits. 

What’s all the fuss?  The ITU and its 193 Member States (including the US) and approximately 700 “Sector Members” will meet this December in Dubai at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) to update the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs), a treaty to which all Member States are signatories. 

And while the details of some of the proposals to change the ITRs are unknown, what we do know about others give cause for alarm.  Several of the proposals are intended to expand significantly the jurisdiction of the ITU to give that body the ability to regulate both Internet access and the Internet itself.  

These include proposals that would give the ITU the power to

1) set mobile data roaming and peering rates,

2) adopt regulations intended to protect children online; and

3) prohibit Internet connections that cause harm to “technical facilities or personnel.”

In a rare “kumbaya” moment in US communications policymaking, policymakers, industry and civil society groups (including Public Knowledge) of all stripes are in accord that the ITU’s jurisdiction should not expand to encompass regulation of the Internet, and that some of the proposals to change the ITRs could well have dramatically bad effects on the internet.

But the fact that pretty much everyone in US communications policymaking land is on the same page with regard to the ITU’s jurisdiction doesn't mean that we will cruise to victory.  While some in the US portray the effort to give the ITU more power as some plot by China, Russia and other repressive regimes to limit freedom of expression and human rights, it’s a lot more complicated that that.  

Some countries just want a safer, more secure internet, and see the ITU as the best way to accomplish that goal.  Also, a number of countries, including democracies and those the US considers friends in Latin America, Africa and elsewhere have serious concerns that the US and US corporations have too much control over the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and other Internet governance bodies.   As Google’s Rick Whitt has said, if this debate is viewed as the US (and by proxy US industry) against the world, the future of the Internet is in peril.

It is with those friendly countries that nevertheless are concerned with US power over the Internet that civil society can have the greatest impact.   Civil society does not have a seat at the ITU table (few can afford the almost $34,000 it costs to become a “Sector Member”).   But US civil society groups can talk to their counterparts around the world (and particularly in countries in the Global South like Brazil & India) and hopefully persuade them that an Internet controlled by an intergovernmental agency like the ITU will be one where speech is less free, human rights are less respected and economic development is slowed.  Many US civil society groups have strong and trusted relationships with their counterparts through work in international policy forums like the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).   If civil society groups in the Global South are convinced, they will can talk to their ITU delegates and urge them to join the US and oppose centralized control over the Internet. 

But it will take more than jawboning by civil society groups here to stop the threat of an ITU takeover.  US civil society (and by extension the US Government) must acknowledge the concerns of countries that believe that the US has too much control over Internet governance, and must address those concerns without giving control of the Internet to the ITU.   Insisting that anything less than the status quo will lead to an ITU takeover is both untrue and ultimately self-defeating.

For background, check out last week’s Free State Foundation conference and the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology’s hearing.

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