Internet Regulation Returns to the International Agenda

By Patrick Goodenough | May 29, 2012 | 1:44am EDT

Meeting with ITU secretary-general Hamadoun Toure in June 2011, Russian Prime Minister (now president) Vladimir Putin discussed a proposal to establish “international control over the Internet using the monitoring and supervisory capabilities of the International Telecommunication Union.” (Photo: ITU/ V. Martin)

( – A long running debate over regulating the Internet is set to intensify in the coming months, culminating in a December meeting of a United Nations agency that some governments think should control what has been the most open and effective communications tool in history.

Past attempts by countries like Russia, India and China to expand international authority – through the U.N. – over the Internet have been unsuccessful, but are expected to make a reappearance at the World Conference of International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai.

The conference is being organized by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a Geneva-based U.N. specialized agency that has been carrying out a review of international telecommunications regulations. Some of its 193 member states want to expand its authority to include an Internet regulatory role, and neither the U.S. nor any other country would have the power to veto a majority decision.

The House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on communications and technology has scheduled a hearing later this week, entitled “International Proposals to Regulate the Internet.”

It will hear testimony from Federal Communications Commission commissioner Robert McDowell, former State Department coordinator on international communications and information policy David Gross, and Sally Shipman Wentworth, senior manager for public policy at the Internet Society.

Opponents of U.N. regulation say the existing state of affairs – known as the “multistakeholder model” – has been highly successful.

A key element of this model is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a California-based not-for-profit corporation contracted to the Department of Commerce, which assigns Internet protocol addresses (such and .org) and oversees Web domains.

“All of us should be concerned with a well-organized international effort to secure intergovernmental control of Internet governance,” McDowell warned during an FCC oversight hearing earlier this month.

Testifying before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, he named China, Russia, India, Iran and Saudi Arabia as some of the countries behind the drive to reverse a consensus in place since the early 1990s – that governments should be kept out of “regulating core functions of the Internet’s ecosystem.”

Among these countries’ targets, McDowell said, were:

-- ITU authority over entities like ICANN;

-- international control over cybersecurity and data privacy;

-- revenue-generating schemes allowing state-owned phone companies to charge fees for international Web traffic; and

-- regulation of international mobile roaming rates and practices.

‘The Internet cannot be under the control of a country’

The last big push led by emerging powers in the developing world to challenge what they see as U.S. “control” of the Internet took place during the ITU-organized World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), held in Tunisia in 2005.

ITU head Hamadoun Toure addresses a press briefing in Kigali, Rwanda (Photo: ITU/M. Zouhri)

Press freedom groups noted at the time that some of the governments spearheading the drive, China’s in particular, were notorious for efforts to censor and restrict the Internet. (The U.S. House and Senate that year passed “sense of Congress” resolutions saying that day-to-day operations of the Internet should continue to be located and maintained in the U.S.)

The developing nations’ bid at the WSIS was ultimately unsuccessful, but countries unhappy with the status quo did make some inroads. An Internet Governance Forum (IGF) was established, a means for “multistakeholders” – governments, businesses, non-governmental organizations and others –– to discuss issues around Internet governance, including policy-making, privacy and cybersecurity.

The outcome document of WSIS, known as the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society, included a clause stating, “We recognize that all governments should have an equal role and responsibility for international Internet governance and for ensuring the stability, security and continuity of the Internet. We also recognize the need for development of public policy by governments in consultation with all stakeholders.”

The campaign to expand responsibility for the Internet did not end in Tunis.

“We stand for a type of governance which is not the preserve of any particular country’s government,” Brazil’s science and technology minister told an annual IGF gathering in Rio in 2007. The Internet, Brazil’s culture minister said during the same event, “cannot be under the control of a country …we need perhaps to think about extending the mandate of the United Nations on the subject.”

Two years later, the annual IGF meeting in Egypt saw the issues of Internet control and censorship spotlighted when organizers at China’s insistence removed an NGO’s poster that made reference to Beijing’s pervasive Internet censorship system.

The incident clearly illustrated the risks of giving repressive regimes a say in how the Internet is regulated. “The global governance implications should be obvious,” Prof. Milton Mueller of the Syracuse University School of Information Studies wrote at the time.

Last June Russian Prime Minister – now president – Vladimir Putin met with ITU secretary-general Hamadoun Toure of Mali, and discussed a proposal to establish “international control over the Internet using the monitoring and supervisory capabilities of the International Telecommunication Union.”

“If we are going to talk about the democratization of international relations, I think a critical sphere is information exchange and global control over such exchange,” Putin told him, calling it a “priority on the international agenda.”

At a seminar on Internet governance three months later – again in Rio – the governments of Brazil, India and South Africa called for the creation of a new “global body” within the U.N. system that would develop international policies and “integrate and oversee the bodies responsible for technical and operational functioning of the Internet.”

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