By Paul Barbagallo
Communications industry stakeholders must maintain vigilance over efforts to
give the United Nations broad new powers to regulate the internet long after the
World Conference on International Telecommunications concludes in December, U.S.
officials said June 5.
At a Capitol Hill briefing hosted by the Advisory Committee to the
Congressional Internet Caucus, representatives from the State and Commerce
departments, as well as the Federal Communications Commission urged caution even
if the 193 member countries of the International Telecommunications Union, a
U.N. agency, vote against including internet-related regulations in a new
international telecommunications treaty. Some countries will not concede defeat
easily, they said.
“We need to be aware of 'incremental-ism,’ ” FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell
told attendees at the briefing.
Of top concern to McDowell are proposed “definitional” changes to the text of
As an example, he cited the Arab States' proposal in February to change one
rule's definition of “telecommunications” to include “processing” or computer
A proposal from China, he noted, would create a new system to register
internet users using their IP addresses. Such a proposal, seemingly small in
scope, could lead to more top-down, intergovernmental regulations, McDowell
“The internet has proliferated so quickly, precisely because it is
permission-less,” McDowell added. “As we go forward, many of the countries
pushing this … are patient. We need to be prepared for the long haul.”
At the U.N. conference this December, China, Russia, and other countries are
expected to formally propose treaty language to give the U.N. International
Telecommunications Union (ITU) greater oversight over three specific
“multistakeholder” groups: the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and
Numbers, which oversees domain name administration for the world's dot-coms and
dot-orgs; the Internet Society, which provides guidance to nations on internet
standards, education, and policy; and the Internet Engineering Task Force, which
oversees the underlying functioning of the internet.
The United States is opposed to expanding the International
Telecommunications Regulations--which were written in 1988 when the internet was
barely in its infancy--to include internet regulations.
U.S. delegates are hoping to use the talks leading up to the year-end summit
to highlight the benefits of the existing model of internet governance, in which
governments, private companies, and independent organizations all play key
roles--voluntarily--and apart from any one law, treaty, or international
“We do not think that the U.N. is the place for the day-to-day operations of
the internet. That is a very clear position of the United States,” said Dr.
Richard Beaird, senior deputy coordinator for international communications and
information policy at the State Department.
Beaird said that, while the U.N. plays many important roles, including
facilitating international discussion, regulation should not be one of them.
Though ITU-member countries have yet to file such a proposal, Beaird said
submissions will commence over the next three to four months.
“It's important to keep in mind that the ITU is the oldest U.N. institution,”
said Fiona Alexander, associate administrator of the Office of International
Affairs at the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information
The ITU originally dealt with telegraph regulations, then handled telephone
The natural inclination of any institution, Alexander said, is to “evolve and
take on new issues.”
“We find that, with technology changing so quickly … all internet issues need
to be addressed in multistakeholder fashion,” Alexander said.
Sally Wentworth, senior manager for public policy at the Internet Society,
described the multistakeholder model as a “mechanism” by which the internet
grows and evolves.
“You bring the people to the table and deploy it in the marketplace to see if
it works--permission-less,” Wentworth said. “We don't believe that a static
treaty is the way to encourage growth of the internet.”