If you believe Politico’s article published Saturday, you might think those in DC working on tech policy, especially conservatives, have been watching a little too much Doomsday Preppers. The article argues that the upcoming World Conference on International Communications (WCIT) poses little to no threat to the freedom and openness that have allowed the internet to thrive. According to Politico it is only paranoia and deep tech industry pockets that have perpetuated the fear that the International Telecommunications Union and involved countries such as China and Russia plan to attempt to regulate and limit the free internet. According to them, even if such proposals passed, the US would simply not ratify the treaty and all would be sunshine and rainbows.
Unfortunately for us all, these assertions are simply wrong. Worry over the outcome of the WCIT is a legitimate fear, and not one held solely by “rabble-rousers of doom.” In August, the House of Representatives passed a unanimous resolution supporting the multi-stakeholder internet model in anticipation of challenges to that model at the WCIT. They are far from alone in this concern as the head of the US delegation to the WCIT, tech industry giants from such companies as Google and AT&T, the associate administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), and FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell have, among many others, all expressed their concern over possible fallout from the WCIT.
This possible fallout, described in a recent Digital Liberty piece, could forever alter the way American companies and individuals interact on the web. Proposals from various countries and organizations (which can pay a fee to participate at the WCIT but may not vote on the final treaty) would institute various types of fees and regulations which would lead to precisely the type of censorship, payment, and oversight whose absence has allowed the internet to become the force of economic and human growth that it has been for the last few decades.
Of course such proposals will be strongly opposed by the United States delegation and its allies.
Politico correctly points out that the US would almost certainly not sign a treaty containing such objectionable parts. However even if the US opted out of such a treaty, Americans would still be seriously affected by the very likely Balkanization of the internet the article so casually mentions on its final page. Other countries implementing treaty mandated fees and regulations would apply them to US internet users. Businesses and consumers would find themselves forced to act differently depending on what country’s internet they would be interacting with. This would cost them money and time to adapt and the global nature of the internet would be fractured, perhaps forever. This is not the fear of basement dwelling conspiracy theorists but of respected actors in tech policy from both sides of the aisle.
At an American Enterprise Institute panel discussion on the WCIT threat, FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell warned that” “the member states who want expanded ITU authority are patient and persistent incrementalists. They’ve been at this for at least a decade.” While Politico may believe that the WCIT is no real threat, the near unanimous concern from respected people like Commissioner McDowell and his fellows in the tech industry, third party organizations like Digital Liberty, lawmakers, and regulators, shows that they are wrong. The WCIT’s threat to the internet as we know it is no conspiracy theory. It is very real, and those at home and representing the US in Dubai must be ready to defend against it.