The ITU December Conference: A Threat to the Free and Open Internet

With the Olympics and upcoming election dominating news coverage, The United Nations' International Telecommunication Union (ITU) World Conference on International Telecommunications in December is not a likely source of interest for most Americans. Yet it certainly should be, for the anti-freedom, pro-regulation policies being considered at the conference are serious enough to have given rise to a rare show of bipartisan action in Congress.           

The ITU Conference will, among other things, be considering proposed amendments to an international telecommunications treaty, two of which are of particular concern to advocates of a free and unregulated internet. In light of this threat, yesterday the House passed H. Con. Res. 127, urging the Executive Branch and US Delegation to the conference to oppose efforts by countries such as China and Russia to allow for greater regulation and control over the internet. The Senate is currently considering a similar resolution, S. Con. Res. 50.
The first of these amendments would impose an outdated system of interconnection fees, similar to those used by telephone carriers. The provider who sends data would be billed by the provider transmitting the received data. Applying such a system to the internet market would be complicated and difficult to implement. Worse, it would likely result in web companies in developed nations such as the United States essentially paying a tax into the coffers of less developed nations, whose telecom systems are run exclusively by the state.
Perhaps even more troubling is the second amendment expected to be pushed by Russia, China, and others, one which would transfer power from the privately run Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to country governments. This transfer would allow countries such as China to have even greater power over the speech and expression of their citizens, a result which will only lessen the already limited free speech available in China and similar countries.
While these two treaty amendments are certainly not the only threats facing internet freedom at the ITU conference, they are certainly two of the most serious. The internet has thrived and expanded in recent years due precisely to the absence of such regulations, yet countries such as China and Russia continue to push for policies which would limit this growth in the future. Congress’ bipartisan resolution in favor of a free and open internet is an encouraging step in the fight to keep the internet unregulated. We can only hope that the US Delegation to the ITU Conference will follow their lead and oppose policies that will the growth of the internet and the economic progress that comes with it.