WCIT 2012: A Threat to the Free and Open Internet

On December 3rd, the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) will open in Dubai. Over 175 delegations from member nations and private organizations will convene to discuss updates to the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs), last updated over two decades ago in 1988. The internet has thrived and grown because it has always been based on two principles: freedom and openness. While this meeting is a chance to update the ITRs to reflect those principles and the related belief in multi-stakeholder governance, some organizations and countries see WCIT as an opportunity to enact harmful regulations that would fundamentally alter the role and nature of the internet.

Perhaps the most troubling proposals submitted for consideration at WCIT are those which aim to limit the openness of the internet and give national governments greater control over internet content. The Russian Federation’s recent proposal, for example, would explicitly expand the ITU treaty to “IP-based networks.” It would also provide a strong endorsement of national control over parts of the web located within a given country’s borders. One proposed change states that “Member States shall have the sovereign right to manage the Internet within their national territory, as well as to manage national Internet domain names." Unfortunately, Russia is not the only country to support the alteration of the multi-stakeholder model that has made the internet such a valuable tool in the advancement of free speech and expression. Many Arab states and others such as China also support allowing governments to essentially censor the internet, fundamentally changing its open nature.

Other dangerous proposals submitted for consideration at WCIT represent an assault on the other fundamental aspect of the internet’s character: that it is free. One particularly problematic proposal was submitted by The European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association, or ETNO. (non-governmental organizations can pay a fee to participate in WCIT but are not given voting rights) The ETNO proposal would require that application and content creators sending data traffic abroad pay what is essentially a tariff to those companies building networks. Intended to address legitimate problems faced by network operators, this solution would stifle international web traffic and would dramatically alter the united, free internet that has led to so much good.

India, Brazil, and South Africa (IBSA) also put forth a proposal which would almost certainly stall economic growth spurred by the internet. The IBSA proposal would call for the creation of United Nations body to “integrate and oversee the bodies responsible for technical and operational functioning of the Internet.”  Much like domestic regulation, oversight by this international body would only stifle growth and innovation.

Were any of these misguided proposals to pass, the US and its allies would almost certainly refuse to implement the ITRs. While this is encouraging, these proposals being implemented in any country would likely lead to internet fragmentation and perhaps end the global internet we now know. In a panel discussion as the American Enterprise Institute, FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell and other industry experts expressed that such a "Balkinization" of the web would be WCIT’s worst case scenario for the US and would fundamentally alter the way businesses and countries operate in internet spaces. The positive economic and human impact of the internet would be severely stalled, if not stopped in many countries.       

Fortunately, in the face of the multitude of frightening proposals and outcomes, there is near unanimous support for the preservation of the free and open internet in the United States. The House of Representatives unanimously passed a strongly worded resolution opposing any international attempt to alter the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance. Terry Kramer, the head of the US delegation to WCIT, has also voiced his opposition to such regulation on multiple occasions. Such a united front is rare to see in today’s political atmosphere, and it is certainly cause for encouragement.

However those countries such as China, Russia, and Brazil who favor government control of the internet will not stop their fight even if their proposals are successfully defeated at WCIT. At the AEI panel discussion, Commissioner McDowell noted that “the member states who want expanded ITU authority are patient and persistent incrementalists. They’ve been at this for at least a decade…and they will be at this first thing in the morning on December 15.” As the greatest supporters of freedom and prosperity around the globe, the United States must be prepared to fight against internet regulation both now and at every turn in the future. Defeating proposals like ETNO, IBSA, and Russia’s proposal will be a promising step in protecting international internet freedom, yet by no means should it be considered the last.