Next Six Months Could Determine Fate of the Internet, FCC Commissioner Warns

Christopher Goins | June 8, 2012 | 12:32am EDT
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Federal Communications Commission commissioner Robert McDowell. (Photo: FCC)

( – Actions taken – or not taken – by proponents of online freedom within the next six months will decide the fate of the Internet, according to Federal Communica-tions Commission commissioner Robert McDowell.

“Six months separate us from the renegotiation of the 1988 treaty that led to insulating the Internet from economic and technical regulation,” McDowell, a Republican, told lawmakers during a hearing on Capitol Hill last week.

“What proponents of Internet freedom do or don’t do between now and then will determine the fate of the Net and effect global economic growth as well as determine whether political liberty can proliferate,” he said.

On December 4, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a Geneva-based U.N. specialized agency, will convene in Dubai to discuss its ongoing review of international telecommunications regulations (ITRs).

The Internet does not currently fall within the scope of the ITRs, but some ITU members, including Russia, India, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, have long been promoting U.N. oversight of the Internet, and are expected to push for it at the Dubai conference.

The U.S. House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on communications and technology held a hearing on May 31, entitled “International Proposals to Regulate the Internet.”

“During the treaty negotiations the most lethal threat to Internet freedom may not come from a full frontal assault, but through insidious and seemingly innocuous expansions of intergovernmental powers,” McDowell told the panel.

He warned that “subterranean efforts” to expand intergovernmental powers were already underway. He cited the ITU leadership’s insistence that the ITU does not plan on expanding regulatory powers, and that if any regulations are implemented as a result of the meeting they should be of “the light touch variety.”

“It is not possible to insulate the Internet from new rules while also establishing a ‘light touch’ regulatory regime,” McDowell said. “Either a new legal paradigm will emerge in December or it won’t.”

Specifically, ITU members and officials have been discussing an alleged “phone numbers crisis” – concerns that the world is running out of phone numbers, an area over which the ITU does have some authority.

Phone numbers are used for some Internet services, such as Skype and Google Voice.

“To function properly, the software supporting these services translate traditional phone numbers into IP addresses,” McDowell explained.

Russia has seized on this fact, and is proposing giving the ITU jurisdiction over IP addresses – essentially the ID number of each individual computer – to remedy the supposed crisis.

“What is left unsaid, however, is that potential ITU jurisdiction over IP addresses would enable it to regulate Internet services and devices with abandon,” Mc Dowell warned.

Other “seemingly small” proposed changes to the U.N.’s regulatory authority – such as a submission from Arab states to change the rules definition of “telecommunications” to cover “processing” and other computer functions – were in fact “titanic in scope,” he said.

‘Drive up costs, inhibit innovation’

The existing state of affairs of Internet governance is known as the “multi-stakeholder model,” and includes the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a California-based not-for-profit corporation contracted to the Department of Commerce, which assigns IP addresses and oversees domains.

Rep. Bono Mack (D-Calif.) has introduced a resolution designed to express Congress’ support for the multi-stakeholder model to continue.

On June 6, policy scholars and government officials met again on Capitol Hill to discuss the proposed regulation.

U.S. deputy coordinator for international communications and information policy Richard Beaird. (Photo: State Department)

U.S. deputy coordinator for international communications and information policy Richard Beaird said the push to expand ITU oversight to include the Internet might be constrained by member states’ interest in their own sovereignty. asked Beaird whether members’ desire to protect their sovereignty “would work in favor of those who want to preserve and advance the multi-stakeholder governance model.”

“Yes, I think that’s right,” he replied. “I think what it does, as a dynamic, is it forces consensus. We come with our views. Many share those views. Where those views may find opposition, not one side is going to be able to take a position that they alone can assert at the end of the day.

“They’re going to have to find a compromise and I think that the rule of the ITU over time has been that you don’t get radical change,” Beaird continued. “You get only incremental change and that in part it’s because you have these large number of countries coming together. They all understand that the game is that the sovereignty of each must be protected.”

“It does work to the advantage of forcing compromises and it compromises towards the middle. And the radical proposals tend to drop off. That is, at least, the historical pattern,” he said. “And we anticipate that it will continue.”

McDowell, who also took part in the June 6 discussion, told that if problematic proposals end up being ratified in a treaty, the consequences for Americans could be “profound.”

“First of all, if anything comes out of this that resembles chaos or disorganization, chaos and uncertainty can inhibit investment,” he said. “It could drive up costs, can inhibit innovation.”

“And if we have to start bifurcating the Internet between countries that want more regulation of it or international regulation of it and those that do not, that’s very hard to accomplish from an engineering perspective, because the Internet is a global network of networks without borders. So that then starts to create uncertainty and drive up costs.”

The end result, he warned, was that “a lot of free services that are on the Internet today – bottom line – would no longer be free.”

McDowell said that in the event of a treaty emerging, American citizens would not have to comply if the U.S. government chose not to adopt the treaty.

“A treaty would have to be ratified by our Senate,” he pointed out. “So first of all, the executive branch – the State Department – endorses it and then they would refer it to the Senate. So we would not have to live under the treaty if other countries decided to adopt it and we decided not to adopt it.”

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