This was originally posted on the Freedom House Blog
This week and next, 193 governments are gathering in Dubai to consider putting the internet under a new regulatory structure that could fundamentally change the way the web works, with dire consequences for global internet freedom.
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a UN body, has convened the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) to review and update the International Telecommunications Regulations, which emerged from a similar conference in 1988. The old rules, known as ITRs, were written to codify principles of international cooperation on telephony, with the hope of expanding the global telephone network and helping it to operate smoothly. Now, 24 years later, the member states of the ITU are deciding, among other questions, whether and how the internet should fall under the same regulatory framework.
Back when the ITRs were first written, the World Wide Web did not yet exist, and internet users numbered only in the thousands. As it grew more popular, the internet was set aside by the ITU and treated as a “special arrangement,” not subject to the Union’s regulations. Under these conditions, the internet flourished organically, with administrative matters addressed through self-regulation, targeted government policies, and an array of technical and multistakeholder bodies. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), for example, is a nonprofit organization that oversees the management of internet protocol (IP) addresses and the domain name system, while the Internet Engineering Task Force is an open, volunteer-based group responsible for developing technical standards for the internet. The Internet Governance Forum, which was held last month in Azerbaijan, offers governments, corporations, and civil society a space to discuss internet policy issues. This ad hoc, informal administration has permitted internet governance to evolve as rapidly and agilely as the technology itself.
To place the internet under regulations written for a wholly different technology, subject to change only by intergovernmental treaty, would pave the way for stifling control far into the future, and jeopardize the internet’s role as a platform for expanding human rights. Yet in advance of the WCIT, certain governments—including a number, not surprisingly, that score poorly in Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net survey—and other entities have proposed putting the ITU in charge of internet regulation. They have also submitted specific draft rules that perfectly illustrate the hazards that could arise from ITU governance of the internet.
A proposal by the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association would impose a “sender pays” fee model, which would force internet content providers to pay for the content they disseminate. While ostensibly intended to give telecommunications companies additional resources to invest in expanding the global network, in fact this proposal would have the opposite effect, benefitting only incumbent telecom firms while raising the cost of internet access for individuals. A second proposal from the same group would establish a two-tiered internet by allowing content providers to pay for higher quality of service. This would violate the principle of net neutrality, which mandates that the network must treat all content equally.
In an attempt to combat crimes committed on or via the internet, multilateral coalitions of Arab and African states have put forward a variety of proposals. One would require that states cooperate in the investigation and prosecution of cybercrime, while another would require states to harmonize laws on data retention. No mention is made, however, of the significant impact these measures could have on the privacy of internet users, and there is a risk that repressive states could use these additions to the ITRs as an excuse for restricting political speech online.
To be sure, cybercrime and the digital divide are legitimate global policy problems, and they will require a coordinated global response. However, these are highly complex issues with multifarious implications. They cannot be properly addressed without granting all stakeholders an equal voice in the debate, and this points to another problem with the WCIT and with the ITU taking authority over the internet: only governments get a vote. While companies and international organizations are welcome to join the ITU as observers—provided they are able to pay the hefty membership fee—the technology, corporate, academic, user, and human rights communities cannot vote and are largely locked out of the proceedings.
The most dire and repressive proposals are unlikely to be adopted as changes to the ITRs at this meeting in Dubai. But the more fundamental question is whether the internet ought to be regulated under this framework at all. Over the past two decades, the internet has grown from almost nothing to a global network of over two billion users, with extraordinary effects on commerce, politics, human rights, and every other aspect of our lives. The current, lightweight regulatory framework has allowed the internet to prosper; imposing UN authority will put this invaluable resource at risk and particularly jeopardize those at odds with their government, many of whom have come to depend on the internet to advance causes like human rights and political freedom.
Fortunately, the U.S. government has made public its opposition to any proposals that would increase the ITU’s control over the internet, and the European Parliament has approved a resolution in support of more open, multistakeholder bodies addressing global internet issues. Without the ability to engage in the WCIT directly, we in civil society must count on like-minded governments to prevent a future in which the internet is less innovative, less inclusive, and diminished as a public space for unrestricted speech on politics and human rights.