Rein in U.N.'s Telecommunications Agency, Former White House Official McLaughlin Says

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By David McAuley  


Days before the start of negotiations to update a decades-old treaty--talks that some say are intended to assert greater government control over the internet--the International Telecommunication Union is becoming the target of increasingly harsh rhetoric in the United States.

Andrew McLaughlin, the former deputy chief technology officer for the Obama administration, cast the ITU as the enemy of telecommunications policy progress, declaring Nov. 29, “It is time to set as United States policy the objective of dismantling the International Telecommunication Union.”

The United States is being too timid in the current debate about global internet governance, McLaughlin said. “We should set a significantly bolder and more audacious goal” than simply leaving the ITU as it is, he added.

The ITU is the United Nations agency for information and communication technologies. The ITU's World Conference on International Communications will be held Dec. 3-8 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. WCIT is a gathering of ITU member states to revise a 1988 treaty that issued the International Telecommunication Regulations, which do not address the internet. A number of member states want to bring the internet within the regulatory reach of the ITRs.

McLaughlin's attack on the ITU echoed comments made earlier in the week by Vint Cerf, an official at Google Inc. and one of the early pioneers of internet communications technologies. “These persistent attempts are just evidence that this breed of dinosaurs, with their pea-sized brains, hasn't figured out that they are dead yet, because the signal hasn't traveled up their long necks,” Cerf told the Reuters news service Nov. 27.

Long List of Problems.

McLaughlin made his remarks at an event sponsored by the New America Foundation, a Washington policy study organization.

The government's goal should be to reduce the ITU's size and scope, but not to kill it off, McLaughlin said, as it still does useful work in limited areas, such as the radio communications sector. However, he added, even in areas where the ITU should still have a role, such as maintaining country codes for telephone dialing, it has managed to “screw things up.” McLaughlin pointed to an incident in which the ITU revoked Taiwan's country code and later reassigned it in what McLaughlin said was a highly politicized maneuver.

McLaughlin ticked off a list of what he said are the ITU's problems. First, he said, its nature, values, structures and processes are inimical to a free and open internet and inconsistent with communications technologies in use today. The ITU's values are reflected in its state-centric, extremely bureaucratic, and nontransparent processes, McLaughlin said.

In addition, McLaughlin said, parts of the ITU adhere to the one-country, one-vote principle, relegating the United States to the same position as Andorra or Liechtenstein. A number of countries abuse this decision-making format to engage in political horse trading, he said. As an example of ITU misbehavior, he pointed to the appropriation of a multi-protocol label switching standard developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force that was taken by the ITU for no reason other than to protect large incumbent monopolists.

The ITU's track record over the last several decades has been to foster corruption and monopolies, and facilitate surveillance and censorship, McLaughlin continued. It is also the nexus for “soft corruption,” one of the worst forms of corruption, he said. “That is to say, that unholy nexus of power wherein the regulator goes to work for the incumbent monopoly, the monopolist places its people into the regulator, they all get to take nice trips to Geneva on a regular basis, and people build their careers around the ITU as essentially a gravy train.”

McLaughlin said that the fact that Russia, Iran, and Cuba all chose the ITU as their preferred vehicle for bringing the internet under government control is evidence why people should be wary of the ITU.

This is not a fight against the people at the ITU, McLaughlin said, adding that he knows many of them and they are decent people. It is a fight against regulation, and centralized power and planning.

Prescription for Reform.

McLauglin said his prescription for the ITU was to “spin out the things that don't need to be anchored in a treaty-based organization, like … the standardization activities of the ITU and perhaps combine its development sector with the Internet Governance Forum to create some kind of a freestanding technical and policy advisory organization with an annual conference for dialogue.”

He specifically laid out steps for the United States:

• first, the United States should shift its representation at the ITU from the State Department to the Federal Communications Commission--the ITU is an organization for regulators, not diplomats;

• second, it should exercise “ruthless scrutiny” in budget expenditures that go to support the ITU as an U.N. agency;

• third, it should push to have the ITU-T sector (its telecommunication standardization sector) spun off to another organization; and

• fourth, the Senate should be prepared to reject a treaty that fails to shrink the ITU's scope.


A webcast of the event may be seen at

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