Internet freedom remains US priority at UN conference
By Grant Gross
The U.S. delegation to an upcoming United Nations telecom treaty-writing conference will not budge on its positions advocating free speech online and opposing broad new regulations for the Internet, the leader of the delegation said.
The U.S. delegation wants a successful World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), said Terry Kramer, head of the U.S. delegation. But if other delegates to WCIT attempt to expand the U.N. International Telecommunication Union’s telecom regulations to the Internet, “we might as well not waste our time,” Kramer said during a WCIT discussion in Washington, D.C. last week.
The U.S. delegation, however, will work hard to advocate for telecom competition and free expression during the ITU event, starting December 3 in Dubai. Open markets offer the only proven way to expand telecom and broadband services to more people, and the U.S. delegation has strong support for that position from parts of Europe, the Far East, and Latin America, Kramer said at the event, sponsored by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.
The conference will give the U.S. delegation the opportunity to talk about the economic benefits of free speech and democracy, but the U.S. will have to be “shrewd” in how it communicates those values, Kramer said.
“We don’t want to come across like we’re preaching to others,” he said. “At the end of the day, we need to influence others. We need to demonstrate an understanding of the environment they’re in.”
The U.S. delegation will spend the three weeks leading up to the conference selling its vision of the meeting to representatives of other countries, Kramer said. There are also some issues that the U.S. delegation will be willing to compromise on, Kramer said, although he didn’t give many examples.
The U.S. delegation remains concerned that some countries will push for telecom-style termination fees for Web traffic, in an effort to raise money for broadband deployment, and that some countries will urge Internet censorship in the name of cybersecurity, Kramer said. The U.S. would not have to adopt those regulations, but U.S. companies would be significantly affected if other countries did, WCIT critics have said.
While Kramer said the U.S. will oppose any attempts at WCIT to regulate the Internet, an ITU representative said the conference should look at ways to bring broadband to more people. The WCIT’s regulations should be extended to create a “global information society,” said Gary Fowlie, head of the ITU’s Liaison Office.
About two-thirds of the world’s population do not have access to the Internet, and one focus of WCIT should be on how to expand broadband to those people, Fowlie said. WCIT should look at ways to make the Internet “affordable and accessible” to all people, he said. The organization also has invited public comment, although that period has ended.
Some fears in the U.S. that the WCIT could lead to regulations censoring the Internet are overstated, Fowlie added. The U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights advocates freedom of expression “through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Any efforts to censor the Internet at WCIT would run counter to that declaration, he said.
Still, WCIT could “create a lot of mischief,” said Milton Mueller, a professor at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies. “This is an accident waiting to happen.”
Instead of creating new regulations that could affect the Internet, the ITU should do away with the international telecom regulations, he said. Instead of the ITU, private companies and civil society should come up with rules for interconnection and other telecom issues, he said.
The ITU and its telecom regulations have hung around after their original purpose has expired, Mueller said. “It’s almost impossible for intergovernmental organizations to go out of existence,” he said. “They just hang on and try to think of new things to do.”
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.