The End of the Internet As We Know It

By Stephanie Blanchard, Digital Editor — February 11, 2013

Since the advent of the internet, hundreds of millions of users have connected without infringement, allowing businesses, global commerce and the flow of ideas to flourish. Through a multi-stakeholder system, the internet operates under "best practices" — not government control.

Is this the end of the internet as we know it?

In early December 2012, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a United Nations specialized agency, held its World Conference in Dubai on the International Telecommunication Regulations (WCIT). Its purpose was to update “binding global regulations” first developed at the 1988 treaty conference, at a time before the internet was neither "ubiquitous" nor talked about.

The 1988 regulations focused on traditional telecommunications, including facilitating access and commerce agreements. More than two decades later, the ITU, with 193 member countries, has turned its attention to the internet. In its 30-page revised regulations, the new treaty has two pages calling for the U.N. management of spam, cybersecurity and "the right" of member states to telecommunications.

Eighty nine nations, including Russia, China and Saudi Arabia, have signed the revised treaty. The United States and 54 other nations, including Japan, Kenya and India, refused.

Protect Free Speech
To start off the 113th Congress, a joint subcommittee meeting was held on Wednesday, Feb. 6 to address this alarming issue. Held before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, the hearing took place with the Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade and the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations.

The focus, said Chairman Greg Walden, Communications & Technology, was "preserving a global internet free from government control."

"The idea that the U.N. ought to be controlling the internet, to me is like putting the Taliban in charge of women's rights. It doesn't make any sense, at all," said Congressman Ted Poe (TX), Chairman of Subcommittee on Terrorism. Oppressive countries want to use the U.N. as a shield to control content and internet operations, and protect against the threat of free speech, he said. "The best thing for developing countries is an unfiltered internet."

Ambassador David A. Gross, former U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy, U.S. Department of State, discussed a one-sentence preamble that simply reads, "These Regulations recognize the right of access of member states to international telecommunication services." This essentially gives human rights to a government entity.

In a follow-up interview with Mobile Enterprise, Gross explained this resolution is an unprecedented expansion to the concept of "human rights" itself. Meaning, human rights cannot, and have never been extended to a government entity. They are inalienable fundamental rights, neither granted nor denied by any outside agency. A person is inherently entitled to such rights at birth. They serve as protection from political, legal and social abuse. However, if a government entity considers itself so entitled, the result would be the opposite.

The resolution was added during the last minutes of WCIT, when Iran was successfully able to call for a vote on the adoption. The problem, Gross noted, is that countries under international sanction could use the so-called “right” as an argument for telecommunications service. Such countries may include Cuba, Sudan and Iran.

Internet Under Assault
Commissioner Robert McDowell of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) did not mince words during testimony. "Ladies and gentlemen," he began, "the internet quite simply is under assault."

McDowell called the proponents of multi-lateral, inter-governmental control of the internet "patient and persistent incrementalists who will never relent until their ends are achieved." He cited the demands that ITC member states have made, including: 
  • Changing basic definitions contained in treaty text so the ITU would have unrestricted jurisdiction over the internet
  • Allowing foreign phone companies to charge global content and application providers internationally mandated fees (ultimately to be paid by all internet consumers) with the goal of generating revenue for foreign government treasuries
  • Subjecting cyber security and data privacy to international control, including the creation of an international “registry” of Internet addresses that could track every Internet-connected device in the world.
"Take action now," McDowell stressed. "Two years hence, let us not look back at this moment and lament that we did not do enough."

Three Areas of Control
Gross did point out, in his interview with Mobile Enterprise, that there are positive aspects of the treaty, for example, the ITU provisions continue to reinforce the commercial nature for telecom carriers. Negatively, although the ITU treaty primarily focuses on telephony, there are several key areas regarding the internet.

McDowell's press office, in a response to an inquiry from Mobile Enterprise, confirmed there are three passages with "cause for alarm:"

Article 5A is a vague call for cyber-security, and without clear definition, will likely lead to censorship. The article says member states shall "ensure the security and robustness of international telecommunication networks in order to achieve effective use thereof and avoidance of technical harm thereto, as well as the harmonious development of international telecommunication services offered to the public." How much robustness? How much security is considered secure? It's a subjective decision.

Article 5B says member states "should endeavour to take necessary measures to prevent the propagation of unsolicited bulk electronic communications and minimize its impact on international telecommunication services." Spam, in this case, is not well defined. There is no number attached to "bulk" for example, which leads to more questions than it answers, noted Gross. It can be assumed that there is more than one, he said, but how many more? Could just two emails be considered SPAM by this definition?

Resolution 3, while not technically part of the treaty, also gives broad direction to the ITU for "the greater growth of the Internet." According to McDowell, "This will serve to broaden the scope of the ITU’s rules to include the Internet, undermining the highly successful, multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance."

Effect on Business
Regardless of what happens at the 2014 conference in Korea, when the ITU updates its constitution, the new treaty will go in effect on Jan. 1, 2015 for the 89 countries that signed. (Each country has its own domestic process, however, so some may not ratify.) The 1988 treaty will remain in effect for the 55 countries that refused.

What happens then? Answer: a potential mess, as the world splits in half over its ideas regarding the internet. Businesses could face unwarranted levies, and those communicating to countries that regulate the internet may suddenly find themselves sending "spam" or being locked out of regions because of supposed "data privacy concerns."
Rep. Chris Smith (NJ), Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has an idea of where to start on the home front. He recently re-introduced the HR-491 Global Online Freedom Act (originally introduced in 2006 and again in 2008) that identifies by name all internet-restricting countries. The bill also requires any internet company (i.e. carriers, ISPs, etc.) on the NYSE to disclose to the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) how they share personally identifiable information with internet-restricting countries and the steps they take to notify users when content is removed or blocked.

If this bill passes, is it enough to address the ramifications of the new ITU regulations? Not likely, not when a free flowing system is at risk of becoming chained by gatekeepers. Some might say what resulted in Dubai could have been worse. Or as Congressman Poe commented at the hearing, "That's like saying you weren't hung, but you were drawn and quartered."


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