U.S. Officials Urge Internet Stakeholders To Remain Vigilant after U.N. Conference

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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 existing rules.

As an example, he cited the Arab States' proposal in February to change one rule's definition of “telecommunications” to include “processing” or computer functions.

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 said.

“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.”

U.S. Advocating 'Multistakeholderism.’

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 regulator.

“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 Administration.

The ITU originally dealt with telegraph regulations, then handled telephone matters.

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.”

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