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
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;
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.