Next Week's Debate: Should U.N. Govern the Internet?

A major United Nations conference next week in Dubai will discuss the long-simmering issue of whether Internet governance should migrate from United States-based bodies to those such as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a UN affiliate.

Two leaked Russian proposals say nations should have the sovereign right “to regulate the national Internet segment,” Reuters reported. "An August draft proposal from a group of 17 Arab countries called for transmission recipients to receive “identity information” about the senders, potentially endangering the anonymity of political dissidents, among others."

Google’s Vint Cerf, the ordinarily diplomatic co-author of the basic protocol for Internet data (known to many as one of the “fathers of the Internet”), denounced the proposed new rules as hopeless efforts by some governments and state-controlled telecom authorities to assert their power.

“These persistent attempts are just evidence that this breed of dinosaurs, with their pea-sized brains, hasn’t figured out that they are dead yet, because the signal hasn’t traveled up their long necks,” Cerf (shown at right in a Wikipedia photo) told Reuters.

I explored these issues Nov. 29 on the My Technology Law Washington Update radio show with my co-host, Scott Draughon, and special guest Gene Gaines, below left, president of the Gaines Group and a co-founder of the Washington, DC metro chapter of the Internet Society.

Gaines, with more than four decades experience in relevant technologies, is a strong supporter of Cerf's position. The show at noon (ET) and is available nationally by archive. Click here to listen. On this and follow up shows on the topic, we welcome listener questions by phone at (866) 685-7469 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Mac users need “Parallels.” 

"This is not a new story," Gaines says, "and actually has been developing for 20 years, though few in the U.S. (particularly in our government) cared either about Europe or the rest of the world."

Gaines continued: "Cerf has been quietly pushing back for years, and the quote of his above is just a reasonable response to the latest developments at the ITU."

The Wall Street Journal published an alarming commentary this week, The U.N.'s Internet Sneak Attack. In it, columnist L Gordon Crovitz wrote, "Created in 1865 as the International Telegraph Union, the ITU last drafted a treaty on communications in 1988, before the commercial Internet, when telecommunications meant voice telephone calls via national telephone monopolies. Next week the ITU holds a negotiating conference in Dubai, and past months have brought many leaks of proposals for a new treaty. U.S. congressional resolutions and much of the commentary, including in this column, have focused on proposals by authoritarian governments to censor the Internet. Just as objectionable are proposals that ignore how the Internet works, threatening its smooth and open operations.  Having the Internet rewired by bureaucrats would be like handing a Stradivarius to a gorilla."

ITU Secretary-General Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré, right, has positioned himself as a compromise negotiator between United States and international interests, and has downplayed frictions. He told Reuters that even though updates to the treaty could be approved by a simple majority, in practice nothing will be adopted without near-unanimity. “Voting means winners and losers. We can’t afford that in the ITU,” said Touré, a former satellite engineer from Mali who was educated in Russia.

Toure predicted to Reuters that only “light-touch” regulation on cyber-security will emerge by “consensus,” using a deliberately vague term that implies something between a majority and unanimity. He rejected criticism that the ITU’s historic role in coordinating phone carriers leaves it unfit to corral the unruly Internet, comparing the Web to a transportation system.

Reuters further quoted a U.S. State Department envoy to the gathering and Cerf agreed with Touré that there is unlikely to be any drastic change emerging from Dubai. “The decisions are going to be by consensus,” said U.S. delegation chief Terry Kramer. He said anti-anonymity measures such as mandatory Internet address tracing won’t be adopted because of opposition by the United States and others. “We’re a strong voice, given a lot of the heritage,” Kramer said, referring to the U.S. invention and rapid development of the Internet. “A lot of European markets are very similar, and a lot of Asian counties are supportive, except China.”

As further background, the Wall Street Journal's Crovitz wrote:

The Internet is made up of 40,000 networks that interconnect among 425,000 global routes, cheaply and efficiently delivering messages and other digital content among more than two billion people around the world, with some 500,000 new users a day. Many of the engineers and developers who built and operate these networks belong to virtual committees and task forces coordinated by an international nonprofit called the Internet Society. The society is home to the Internet Engineering Task Force (the main provider of global technical standards) and other volunteer groups such as the Internet Architecture Board and the Internet Research Task Force. Another key nongovernmental group is Icann, which assigns Internet addresses and domain names.

The self-regulating Internet means no one has to ask for permission to launch a website, and no government can tell network operators how to do their jobs. The arrangement has made the Internet a rare place of permission-less innovation. As former Federal Communications Commission Chairman William Kennard recently pointed out, 90% of cooperative "peering" agreements among networks are "made on a handshake," adjusting informally as needs change.

Proposals for the new ITU treaty run to more than 200 pages. One idea is to apply the ITU's long-distance telephone rules to the Internet by creating a "sender-party-pays" rule. International phone calls include a fee from the originating country to the local phone company at the receiving end. Under a sender-pays approach, U.S.-based websites would pay a local network for each visitor from overseas, effectively taxing firms such as Google. The idea is technically impractical because unlike phone networks, the Internet doesn't recognize national borders. But authoritarians are pushing the tax, hoping their citizens will be cut off from U.S. websites that decide foreign visitors are too expensive to serve. Regimes such as Russia and Iran also want an ITU rule letting them monitor Internet traffic routed through or to their countries, allowing them to eavesdrop or block access. "The Internet is highly complex and highly technical," Sally Wentworth of the Internet Society told me recently, "yet governments are the only ones making decisions at the ITU, putting the Internet at their mercy." She says the developers and engineers who actually run the Internet find it "mind boggling" that governments would claim control. As the Internet Society warns, "Technology moves faster than any treaty process ever can." 

The issues involved are of keen importance to our radio audience, and we'll be exploring them on the radio show during coming weeks. Both my co-host and I are attorneys who have long practiced in this area. In my case, I advocated policy positions with our legal team and leading member companies during several long-running ITU controversies regarding different spectrum bands available for Internet, or broadband, uses when I led the Wireless Communications Association in its global efforts to create a new broadband wireless industry.

For such purposes, I have attended several overseas ITU conventions, including one in Costa Rica in which I was a speaker and met Dr. Touré, and one in Japan, where I am portrayed at left below in a 1994 photo.

The stakes were described as follows at a preview conference Nov. 29 at the New America Foundation in Washington, DC, as follows:

The United Nations has its eyes on the Internet. A summit next month could lead to a telecommunications treaty granting a U.N. agency jurisdiction, and control, over the online universe. The issue is being furiously debated and lobbied in advance of the summit. Companies, technologists, free speech advocates and national governments must now consider the relative merits of the current decentralized, U.S.-centered governance of the Internet, versus a more equitable, multinational (but possibly more restrictive) system. Haven't heard much about this looming fight that could radically alter the character of the Internet? It's not too late.

That will be our goal, both on this week's radio show and in coming weeks. "This ITU effort is a public relations campaign," Gaines said. "Their objective is to find compromises that give ITU or its agents a toe-hold. But the ITU way of operating and thinking is at odds with the way we operate today."


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Related News Coverage

Andrew Kreig at ITU Plenipotentiary in Kyoto

Reuters, Bitter struggle over Internet regulation to dominate global summit, Joseph Menn, Nov. 27, 2012. An unprecedented debate over how the global Internet is governed is set to dominate a meeting of officials in Dubai next week, with many countries pushing to give a United Nations body broad regulatory powers even as the United States and others contend such a move could mean the end of the open Internet. The 12-day conference of the International Telecommunications Union, a 147-year-old organization that's now an arm of the United Nations, largely pits revenue-seeking developing countries and authoritarian regimes that want more control over Internet content against U.S. policymakers and private Net companies that prefer the status quo. Many of the proposals have drawn fury from free-speech and human-rights advocates and have prompted resolutions from the U.S. Congress and the European Parliament, calling for the current decentralized system of governance to remain in place.

Wall Street Journal, The U.N.'s Internet Sneak Attack, L Gordon Crovitz, Nov. 25, 2012. Who runs the Internet? For now, the answer remains no one, or at least no government, which explains the Web's success as a new technology. But as of next week, unless the U.S. gets serious, the answer could be the United Nations. Many of the U.N.'s 193 member states oppose the open, uncontrolled nature of the Internet. Its interconnected global networks ignore national boundaries, making it hard for governments to censor or tax. And so, to send the freewheeling digital world back to the state control of the analog era, China, Russia, Iran and Arab countries are trying to hijack a U.N. agency that has nothing to do with the Internet.  For more than a year, these countries have lobbied an agency called the International Telecommunications Union to take over the rules and workings of the Internet.

Dr. Vinton Cerf, Testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives on Internet Governance, May 31, 2012. his morning Google Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf will testify before the House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee on Internet Governance and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The hearing will examine international proposals to regulate the Internet; specifically the ITU’s recent efforts to increase its authority over Internet governance. The ITU is an agency of the United Nations which has focused on setting international standards and policies for telephone services and radio frequencies. Expanding their authority into Internet governance has the potential to restrict and endanger the future of the open Internet. Vint’s testimony emphasizes the importance of a multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance and technical management. He also encourages the U.S. Government—in partnership with like-minded countries and their citizens—to engage in the ITU process to ensure transparency, openness and innovation and protect free expression.

New America Foundation, Who Should Govern the Internet? (For Video, see conference moderated by Arizona State University Law Professor Joel Garreau, featuring keynoter Andrew McLaughlin, Entrepreneur-in-Residence, betaworks, Deputy Chief Technology Officer of the United States (2009-2011), Nov. 29, 2012. The United Nations has its eyes on the Internet. A summit next month could lead to a telecommunications treaty granting a U.N. agency jurisdiction, and control, over the online universe. The issue is being furiously debated and lobbied in advance of the summit. Companies, technologists, free speech advocates and national governments must now consider the relative merits of the current decentralized, U.S.-centered governance of the Internet, versus a more equitable, multinational (but possibly more restrictive) system.

Internet Society, Submission for the ITU World Conference on International Telecommunication Regulations (WCIT-12), Oct. 31, 2012. The Internet Society (ISOC) is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring the open development, evolution, and use of the Internet for the benefit of all people throughout the world. Since 1992, ISOC has served as a global clearinghouse for technically sound, unbiased information about the Internet, as an educator, and as a focal point for a broad based community of interest engaged in Internet-related initiatives around the world. It provides the organizational home for the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), Internet Architecture Board (IAB), and the Internet Research Task Force (IRTF). As a Sector Member of the ITU Telecommunication Standards and Telecommunication Development Sectors, ISOC respectfully submits this contribution to the ITU as part of the WCIT public consultation. We commend the ITU Secretariat and the ITU Council for taking action to allow public input into the WCIT process. We think this is an important way to encourage inclusion of differing opinions as part of an open and healthy policy discussion. Through our Sector Membership, we have participated in the Council Working Group on WCIT and regional and national dialogues on the ITRs over the past several years with the aim of making a constructive contribution to the work of the Conference.  The Internet Society remains hopeful that the ITU Member State delegations to the WCIT will agree to a treaty that enhances rather than restricts international telecommunications.

Catching Our Attention on other Justice, Media & Integrity Issues

Rupert MurdochFree Press, Why Is the Obama FCC Plotting a Massive Giveaway to Rupert Murdoch? Craig Aaron, Nov. 19, 2012. What if I told you the Obama administration's first major post-election policy move was a big, fat gift for Rupert Murdoch? You might ask: The same Rupert Murdoch who owns Fox News? The same Rupert Murdoch who scandalized England with phone-hacking, influence peddling and bribery? The same Rupert Murdoch who stays up late Saturday nights pondering things on Twitter like what to do about "the Jewish-owned press"? Crikey. Murdoch already owns the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, Fox News Channel, Fox movie studios, 27 local TV stations and much, much more. Word is that Murdoch now covets the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune  — the bankrupt-but-still-dominant newspapers (and websites) in the second- and third-largest media markets, where Murdoch already owns TV stations. Under current media ownership limits, he can't buy them. It's illegal ... unless the Federal Communications Commission changes the rules. But according to numerous reports, that's exactly what FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski plans to do. He's circulating an order at the FCC to lift the longstanding ban on one company owning both daily newspapers and TV stations in any of the 20 largest media markets. And he wants to wrap up this massive giveaway just in time for the holidays.

Huffington Post, Leveson Report Published: New Body Regulating British Press And Backed By Law Recommended, Jack Mirkinson, Nov. 29, 2012. The long-awaited report from the Leveson Inquiry into the ethics and practices of the scandal-scarred British media was published on Thursday. In the report, Lord Justice Leveson called for a new government law to back an independent regulatory body overseeing the press, which he said had acted in ways that "at times, can only be described as outrageous." The Guardian said that it would be the first press law in Britain since 1695. Leveson's recommendations for legislation were immediately thrown into doubt after Prime Minister David Cameron said he had "serious concerns and misgivings" about "any legislation that has the potential to impinge free speech and a free press." Speaking at a press conference on Thursday, Leveson called the report the "most concentrated" look at the British press that the country had ever seen. He said the press had "caused real hardship and wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people." News Corp. leader Rupert Murdoch, whose company was the leading target of the report, is shown at right in a photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Huffington Post, WikiLeaks Hearing: Judge Accepts Terms Of Bradley Manning's Proposed Plea, David Dishneu, Nov. 29, 2012.  An Army private charged in the biggest security breach in U.S. history testified Thursday that he felt like a doomed, caged animal after he was arrested in Baghdad for allegedly sending classified information to the secret-spilling website WikiLeaks. Pfc. Bradley Manning testified on the third day of a pretrial hearing at Fort Meade, outside Baltimore. His lawyers are seeking dismissal of all charges, contending his pretrial confinement in a Quantico, Va., Marine Corps brig was needlessly harsh. Before he was sent to Quantico in July 2010, Manning spent some time in a cell in a segregation tent at Camp Arifjan, an Army installation in Kuwait.