Free Internet Under Fire

U.S. to oppose Russian plan to give U.N. control of Internet

International Telecommunication Union
November 29, 2012

The United States will seek to block an "alarming" Russian proposal to give a United Nations telecommunications group control over the Internet, a senior State Department official said on Thursday.

"We will actively oppose the Russian proposal," Terry Kramer, head of the U.S. delegation to a U.N. conference in Dubai, told reporters.

"I have to say, out of all the proposals that have come in, the Russian one candidly is the most shocking and most disappointing in terms of achieving the success that we are seeking globally," he said.

A Russian government proposal to amend a U.N. treaty at a meeting of the world body’s World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai next week contains a provision that calls for bringing "IP-based networks" under U.N. control.

The U.N. treaty, called the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITR), is currently limited to regulating international telecommunications services.

The Russian proposal to amend the treaty has the support of other non-democratic states such as China and Iran.

A copy of the Russian proposal was made public on Nov. 13. It states that "the [proposed] additions to the ITRs ... are aimed at formulating an approach that views the Internet as a global physical telecommunications infrastructure, and also as a part of the national telecommunications infrastructure of each Member State," according to Cnet news.

The conference will be held from Dec. 3 to 14 in Dubai.

Kramer said in a conference call with news reporters that the Dubai conference is not supposed to be focused on Internet governance.

"If you look at the Russian proposal, it’s clearly focused on Internet governance," he said. "It would basically move to governments the right to route traffic, to review content, and say that’s all a completely national matter—an extremely important precedent it would set for opening the doors, again, to more censorship."

The Internet giant Google is opposing efforts by the U.N. to control the Internet through the Dubai conference.

"A free and open world depends on a free and open Internet," Google said in a statement on a website it created called Take Action. "The ITU is the wrong place to make decisions about the future of the Internet."

Governments have enacted 19 new laws that threaten online free expression over the last two years, the statement said.

Some of the proposals in Dubai would lead to censorship and curtailing Internet access while others will force services like YouTube, Facebook, and Skype to pay tolls to connect around the world, Google said.

Kramer said the Russian proposal was one of several proposals "that are alarming."

Other proposals seek an "invasive approach of governments into managing the Internet, in managing the content that goes via the Internet, what people are looking at, what they’re saying, et cetera," he said.

"These fundamentally violate everything that we believe in in terms of democracy and opportunities for individuals, and we’re going to vigorously oppose any proposals of that nature," Kramer said.

Other proposals call for setting up pricing regimes that would force Internet providers to pay to have traffic delivered abroad.

"If you can think about the implications of this, today much of what we get via the Internet is free," Kramer said. "In these models, there would now be a paid model."

Other issues to be discussed at the Dubai meeting will include cyber security and include potentially damaging provisions.

"This is an area that is a critical challenge that we’ve got to protect our networks from malware and hacking, etc.," Kramer said. "But many of the proposals we’ve seen seem to open the door for content censorship, for routing of traffic, and the ability of governments to control what’s happening on those networks. And again, we find that concerning."

The U.S. delegation to the conference will push for affordable broadband and Internet access around the world.

Kramer said in dealing with cyber threats that U.S. delegates would push to be "very, very careful about who we assign to deal with these issues."

China is one state that has been actively working to limit Internet freedom. Chinese censors are among the most advanced at restricting free speech and online content for its estimated 500 million Internet users.

"The Chinese method for controlling social-media content—restricting access to international networks while coercing their domestic alternatives to robustly censor and monitor user communications according to the ruling Chinese Communist Party directives—has become a particularly potent model for other authoritarian countries," according to a study made public in September by the Freedom House.

China proposed taking control away from the current administrator of the web, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), and giving it to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) last year.

"Governments alone should not determine the future of the Internet," the Google statement said. "The billions of people around the globe that use the Internet, and the experts that build and maintain it, should be included."

However, the ITU meeting is limited to government participants and includes representatives of governments "that do not support a free and open Internet," Google said.

"Engineers, companies, and people that build and use the web have no vote," the statement said. "The ITU is also secretive. The treaty conference and proposals are confidential."

Author Arthur Herman wrote in the current issue of Commentary that the U.N. conference poses dangers to Internet freedom.

If new restrictions are codified at the conference, "In short, governance of cyberspace will pass from the country that has kept it free and accessible since its creation—the United States—to the same organization that gave us the financial scandals at UNESCO, voted to designate Zionism as racism, and seated China, Syria, and Muammur Qaddafi’s Libya on its Commission on Human Rights," Herman wrote.

Kramer said he has been reaching out to nations that support the U.S. position on an open and free Internet in preparation for the meeting.

"We’re getting some positive messages from our partners, then we’re going to hope that there won’t be adverse proposals coming out of this," he said.

Kramer said he does not believe the ITU should be dismantled and has done some important work on the sharing of information and developmental activities.

Countering the proposals form "nondemocratic" nations is "worrisome," he said, but "I don’t believe per se that dismantling the ITU is the way to effectively solve that."

The first priority for the United States at the Dubai conference will be to steer the focus toward telecommunications issues and away from Internet controls, Kramer said.

For the telecommunications treaty, public providers such as AT&T and Verizon Wireless should be involved in discussing regulations, he said.

"This should not be the charter to review private networks, Internet networks, cloud computing networks, and on the other side, government networks," he said. "That’s not the charter of this treaty."

Key U.S. backers at the conference include nations from North and South America, Europe, and Asia.

"And there’s a variety of nations that are still forming their positions or we have some disagreement with and we’re going to spend time with and hopefully reach alignment on these common principles about liberalization and internet success," Kramer said.