A U.S. delegation is preparing to do battle at a global telecommunications meeting next month, with a focus on protecting an international treaty that has ensured Internet freedom for over two decades.
The 1988 treaty, the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs), covers the way international voice, data, and video traffic is transmitted. The ITRs are up for review at a United Nations International Telecommunication Union (ITU) convention from Dec. 3 to 14 in Dubai.
The United States is arguing that the treaty has worked well, allowing the Internet to flourish and individual countries to make their own regulations and, as such, the treaty needs little modification. Other countries, including Russia and China, are proposing changes that will see greater government control, new restrictions, and less transparency on the Internet.
Mindel De La Torre, head of the International Bureau of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, said the survival of the ITRs to this point is due to their “high-level” focus on general principals.
Some countries have expressed concern that the free nature of the Internet will cost revenue, De La Torre said, referring to communications software company Skype as an example. But they are looking at “old framework” models that could eventuate into things like “toll booth”-type systems at country borders, which would stifle the Net.
The Internet’s success in its present form had brought great benefit to countries around the world, she said, and added that a key tenet of U.S. strategy is, “If the treaty isn’t broken, don’t fix it.”
De La Torre was the keynote speaker at a forum in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, on the coming Dubai World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). The forum was one of a series organized by a group of telecommunication companies under the title of the Broadband Breakfast Club.
Lawyer Ross Schulman, responsible for public policy at the Computer & Communications Industry Association, sees increased regulations as an economic threat. The Internet is now used by over 2.2 billion people and has enabled those in both the developing and developed world to reach well beyond local markets, to the international marketplace.
“This will require not only significant re-architecting of the network, but will also introduce the ability at a much finer level to track users.”
—Emma Llansó, Policy Counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT)
“To the extent we might slow that down, we have, obviously, a massive concern,” Schulman said at the forum.
Some countries are also proposing rights to track traffic on the Internet, raising not only privacy and human rights concerns, but also complicated restructuring.
“This will require not only significant re-architecting of the network, but will also introduce the ability at a much finer level to track users,” Emma Llansó, Policy Counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), told the forum. CDT is an NGO focused on keeping the Internet free.
Freedom of information is also threatened, and some states are proposing specific changes that would facilitate control over content.
Llansó said the treaty in its present state is right for the job, as it focuses more on international norms than regulations.
“It is not going to be the kind of document that can provide the kind of nuanced and particular policy considerations to address any of these individual issues,” she said.
Threats posed to the treaty have brought rare bipartisan support in Congress, the House voting 414–0 on a resolution supporting U.S. government officials in their negotiations, and responding with a statement saying it is the “consistent and unequivocal policy of the United States to promote a global Internet free from government control.”
The United States is particularly aware of the multi-stakeholder nature of the Internet and concerned that could be undermined, said Fiona Alexander from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), a branch of the Department of Commerce. Speaking at the D.C. forum, she noted that even the ITU represented only its 193 members, restricting who could participate and who could access information.
“Our concern is that the people that are impacted by that are not allowed in the room,” she said.
The United States will field a delegation of over 100 people at WCIT, including members of civil society, representatives from Internet companies, and government officials.
“Other countries don’t do that,” she said.
At the D.C. forum, Gary Fowlie, spokesman for the ITU, welcomed suggestions proposed, saying the ITU’s concerns were to promote prosperity, sustainability, and social inclusion in telecommunications.
In that respect, WCIT was an important global forum to raise issues concerning the industry, he said.
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