U.S. Policy Support for Multistakeholder Governance Faces Test at ITU Plenipotentiary

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By James Lim

Oct. 20 — The U.S. delegation of government officials and private-sector stakeholders traveling to this week's International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Plenipotentiary Conference will attempt to fashion a new global consensus for a free and open Internet while turning back calls for greater government control over Internet-related activities, the top U.S. delegate said Oct. 20.

“We don't see any major proposals that have real support of a significant portion of the [ITU] to strip multistakeholder institutions of the work they do,” U.S. Ambassador Daniel Sepulveda, a senior telecom policy official at the Department of State, told Bloomberg BNA. “The vast majority of the world believes that the Internet is working and is accessible.”

China, Russia and some other ITU member states are expected to use the opportunity presented by the three-week ITU conference to make their voices heard about changing the way the Internet is governed. The plenipotentiary, held in Busan, South Korea, will run from Oct. 20 to Nov. 7.

ITU Nibbling at Edges of Internet Policy

The ITU currently has no formal role in coordinating international public policy on Internet–related topics, although there are several ITU documents that present opportunities for the organization to insinuate itself into Internet governance:

• Resolution 102, which sets out the ITU public policy role with regard to the Internet, including domain names and addresses, adopted by the organization at its 2010 meeting in Guadalajara;

• Revisions to the ITU definition of “information and communication technologies,” a key scoping term;

• Outcomes from the ITU Council Working Group on International Internet Public Policy Issues;

• Possible decisions about implementing the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) recommendations and whether or not to launch new WSIS-related activities;

• Follow-up work by the 2013 World Telecommunication Policy Forum on the role of governments in Internet governance; and

• Resolution 3 from the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications, which declared the ITU role in fostering Internet growth.

“We will discuss public policy issues related to Internet governance,” which is not part of the ITU portfolio, with a view to “building bridges” between the telecommunications community and the Internet community, Hamadoun Touré, the outgoing, two-term ITU secretary-general, said at an Oct. 20 press conference.

This year's ITU plenipotentiary conference comes at a crossroads for global Internet governance amid the changing economic landscape with China's growing influence on electronic commerce and, by extension, the Internet as a whole.

“There will be more people on the Internet in China than in any other country in the world,” Sepulveda said. “At the end of the day, I think China, like every other country including the U.S., should be playing a constructive and collaborative role within a multistakeholder system to make the Internet work for everyone.”

China's clout over the Internet could grow with Houlin Zhao, the current ITU deputy secretary-general from China, set to be elected Oct. 23 as the next secretary-general of the specialized United Nations organization with 193 member states.

Multistakeholder Governance at Stake

The official U.S. Internet policy calls for preserving a free and open Internet under a global multistakeholder community encompassing Web registries, website owners, and nonprofit organizations. To that end, the U.S. Department of Commerce is working on an overhaul of the current system of allocating domain names through an advisory group of governments and public-sector stakeholders convened under the auspices of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

“The multistakeholder process is the best mechanism in which to discuss the Internet-related issues,” Sepulveda said. “The reason for that is the complexity of issues and a number of different sectors and types of people that it involves.”

A possible U.S. hand-off of ICANN oversight responsibilities in 2015—to an as-yet undetermined, multistakeholder-led entity— is only part of the transition of Internet governance to the multistakeholder Internet community.

“ICANN is not the Internet,” Sepulveda said. “Within Internet governance, there is a constellation of institutions and organizations that make the Internet possible.” These include both ICANN and the ITU, Sepulveda said.

“What is on the table is the contractual relationship between the U.S. Department of Commerce and ICANN for the operation of IANA [Internet Assigned Numbers Authority] functions in a manner consistent with the policy and practices dictated by the Internet community,” he said.

Russia, China, and some Arab nations are widely seen as favoring intergovernmental control facilitated by the ITU or the United Nations as a vehicle for legitimizing national measures to control Internet access by their citizens.

“We don't believe that centralizing power that way would be either effective or correct,” Sepulveda said. “It would disenfranchise the community of people who have created the Internet and operate and work on it today.”

ITU Support for Internet Growth

Touré said that the Internet should remain free from singular governmental or intergovernmental control.

“I believe that no one single entity should be governing the Internet,” Touré said. “No single entity can control or govern the Internet.”

The secretary-general called for a complementary relationship between the telecommunications industry governed by ITU standards and the Internet community operating under U.S.-led industry standards.

“Many standards that have been made in the ITU have been made especially to make the Internet more accessible,” he said. “This will continue.”

Touré said that he believed that mobile Internet growth will catalyze the bridge-building process between the two camps.

Sepulveda said that the ITU, which marks the 150th anniversary in 2015, should find its relevance in promoting global connectivity.

“The future role of ITU should be to encourage and enable connectivity of networks. It shouldn't be to say what people can or cannot do with that connectivity” because “it need not provide protocols by which to connect to each other and it need not provide a naming and numbering system for the Internet.”

“Those are functions that should not be politicized,” Sepulveda said. “I would like to see consensus decisions” at the end of the plenipotentiary conference with “no effort to impose rules or outcomes on the membership of the Union where consensus does not exist.”

The ITU areas of responsibility include allocating global radio spectrum and satellite orbits, and developing technical standards for networks and information and communication technologies (ICT).

The plenipotentiary conference is a key venue for ITU member states to decide on the future role of the Geneva-based organization, thereby determining its ability to influence the development and diffusion of ICT worldwide.

To contact the reporter on this story: James Lim in Busan at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Thomas O'Toole at totoole@bna.com