Leaked Proposals Set Stage for UN Squabble Over Internet Freedom
The United States is battling over proposed United Nations regulations that could place new burdens and restrictions on Internet companies and users.
The trouble is rooted in the decision of the UN's International Telecommunication Union to overhaul International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) that outline the principles governing the way international voice, data and video traffic is handled.
More than 190 ITU members will consider the ITRs at the organization's forthcoming world conference on international telecommunications (WCIT), to be held in Dubai in December.
Information about the proposals presented to the ITU by various members was published on WCITleaks.org, a website set up jointly by Eli Dourado and Jerry Brito, researchers at George Mason University Mercatus Center to combat the apparent secrecy surrounding those proposals.
What's Being Proposed
Russia has proposed that ITU member states ensure the public has unrestricted access and use of international telecommunication services except in cases where international telecommunication services are used for the purpose of interfering in the internal affairs or undermining the sovereignty, national security, territorial integrity and public safety of other states, or to divulge information of a sensitive nature.
The European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association (ETNO) submitted a proposal that, in effect, will require content providers like Google and Facebook to invest in infrastructure to offset the demands such content, especially videos, make on Internet bandwidth.
America Stakes Out Its Position
The proposed changes to the ITRs have stirred up opposition in the United States.
The U.S. House of Representatives' Energy and commerce Committee voted earlier this week to approve House Concurrent Resolution 127. This states that the proposals would diminish the freedom of expression on the Internet in favor of government control over content, contrary to international law. It also resolves that U.S. representatives should work to implement U.S. policy, which is to promote a global Internet free from government control, among other things.
What Is Internet Freedom?
It's not clear, however, that American opposition to some of the proposals tabled with the ITU will advance the cause of freedom.
Take the Russian proposal, for example. It basically comes out against third-party interference in a country's internal affairs and state-sponsored hacking.
One U.S. objection to this proposal, though, is that its wording could let a country repress political opposition and cite the ITRs for support. Another is that it appears to contradict Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This states that everyone has the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.
However, the U.S. government itself monitors and regulates Internet use, so "some of Congress' statements about WCIT have a strong odor of hypocrisy," said Eli Dourado, a research fellow at the George Mason University Mercatus Center.
"The United States has so far opposed cyberwar treaties, because the U.S. is likely to do rather well in a cyberwar, and because cyberwar can be a substitute for actual war, which can cost many more lives," Dourado pointed out.
"As the Stuxnet and Flame incidents remind us, we in the U.S. also conduct some of those attacks [to steal other countries' national and commercial secrets]," Milton Mueller, a professor at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies who's involved with the Internet Governance Project (IGP), told TechNewsWorld.
Also, the Russian proposal would expand the scope of the ITU, which currently doesn't have any jurisdiction of the Internet, Dourado told TechNewsWorld. Further, the U.S. "believes the appropriate forum for national security concerns is the [UN] Security Council, where it has a veto, not the ITU, where it does not."
The U.S. objects to ETNO's proposal to make content providers invest in infrastructure because "this would have the effect of making Internet communications much more expensive for providers of Internet content and other Internet services," Mark MacCarthy, vice president for public policy at the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA), told TechNewsWorld. "The U.S. role should be to resist this change."
America's objections are partly on business grounds but "the issue is more complicated" than that, the Mercatus Center's Dourado suggested. Among other things, the ETNO proposal would decrease the quality of consumers' access to the Internet by reducing the incentive to develop local content caches.
The ETNO proposal "is not a good idea" because "we want Internet interconnection agreements to remain contractual and market-driven and not get into the morass of having them set by national or international regulators," the IGP's Mueller said.
In any event, the ITRs don't have much clout in Internet governance because "the UN by itself has little enforcement power, other than what its member states do for it," Mueller pointed out.