US: New Battle Brewing At ITU Will ‘Determine The Future Of The Internet’

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The United States stands united in its opposition to any international proposal to regulate the internet or to expand the jurisdiction of the United Nations International Telecommunication Union (ITU) over the Web, US officials said on 31 May.

At a hearing in Washington, DC, of the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communication and Technology, Democrats and Republicans alike took turns saying the Congress and administration is on the same page in supporting, instead, the decentralized, multistakeholder approach currently in place.

“We must resist efforts by some countries to impose a top-down, command-and-control management regime on the internet,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat.

“Giving authority to an international governing body would put our nation’s sovereignty at risk,” added Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican. “I think the Obama administration should be commended for trying to thwart this power grab.”

Related: Diplomatic Arm-Wrestling Over Scope of International Telecommunications Regulations Treaty

“Is there anyone in this room who thinks the United Nations can competently manage the internet?” asked Florida Rep. Cliff Stearns, a Republican. “I don’t think we want to punt this to the UN.”

In December, 193 nations who are part of the ITU – established in 1865 to oversee international telegraph regulations – will meet in Dubai at the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). They will consider changes to the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITR), which, adopted by treaty, govern the international operation of traditional telephone service.

Some countries – those who have a tighter grip over the internet’s use in their respective countries than the West and elsewhere, often in the name of political or cyber security – are proposing to expand those regulations and the jurisdiction of the ITU to apply to the internet.

Currently, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a California non-profit corporation loosely tied to the US Department of Commerce, has technical oversight of the domain name system. A number of ad hoc groups under the umbrella of the Internet Society work together to create voluntary standards for internet users to make interconnection of all networks easier. But there is no international body to handle political and societal questions on the internet.

‘Disastrous’ Implications

One proposal causing great distress heading into Dubai is by Russia, China, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Entitled “The International Code of Conduct for Information Security,” it would establish a global “information security” regime.

Related: ICANN IP Advisory Group – Whois, Dot-Brands, Contracts Key Sticking Points in New Domains

The proposal “raises a series of basic principles of maintaining information and network security which cover the political, military, economic, social, cultural, technical and other aspects,” China’s government said. “The principles stipulate that countries shall not use such information and telecom technologies as the network to conduct hostile behaviors and acts of aggression or to threaten international peace and security and stress that countries have the rights and obligations to protect their information and cyberspace as well as key information and network infrastructure from threats, interference and sabotage attacks.”

But US officials and allies fear that such a framework could serve as a justification for countries to engage in internet censorship in the name of national security.

“The implications are potentially disastrous,” said Vincent Cerf, known as the “father” of the internet and current vice president and chief internet evangelist at Google. More international control over the internet, he added, could “trigger a race to the bottom” in terms of minimal freedoms afforded where the internet is concerned, more filtering and censorship, as well as “choking innovation and hurting American business abroad.” Google is one American company that has had troubled relations in China; just this week, Google announced that it will warn users when they are using terms likely to raise the ire of Chinese authorities and will suggest ways around the censorship. Google has even threatened to leave China.

Russian President Vladimir Putin last year commended ITU chief Hamadoun Toure for “establishing international control over the internet using the monitoring and supervisory capabilities of” the ITU. “If we are going to talk about the democratisation of international relations, I think a critical sphere is information exchange and global control over such exchange,” Putin added.

Statements like these have US officials worried about whether the majority of WCIT participants will be on their side come December. FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell called it “concerning,” while at least one lawmaker questioned Toure’s relationship with Putin. Several subcommittee members tried to get a clear answer as to what countries – and how many – exactly, share America’s concerns and will unite in Dubai.

“By and large, we are gratified” with responses from other countries, said Ambassador Philip Verveer, deputy assistant secretary of state and US coordinator for international communications and information policy. A “significant number of our allies are prepared to step up to … fundamentally bad ideas.” But Verveer acknowledged that the treaty likely won’t be approved by vote, since the ITU traditionally tries to avoid votes; rather, the group will move forward without consensus.

The United States and countries in agreement on many of the larger issues – such as Mexico, Canada, Japan, and many in Europe – also believe that the proposed settlement regime for telecommunications traffic will not be effective if applied to the dynamic and diverse, global nature of the internet.

Cerf said not only do Russia and China have him worried with their proposals, but “Brazil and India have surprised me with their interest in intervening and vying for control.” Other countries, such as Syria, Saudi Arabia, and other perceived oppressive regimes, he added, “those who are threatened by openness and freedom of expression are those who are most interested in gaining control through this treaty.” Some pointed to the Arab transition as case in point as to how the internet served as a vital tool for organising uprisings against oppressive governments.

Another topic expected to be of hot debate in Dubai is whether the ITU recommendations will become mandatory; ITU recommendations are traditionally non-binding. McDowell said other foreign proposals he has heard of would use international mandates to charge certain Web destinations on a “per-click” basis to fund the rollout of broadband infrastructure in various countries. The Russian Federation has proposed that the ITU be given jurisdiction over IP addresses to remedy the phone number shortage.

“The open internet has never been at higher risk than it is now,” said Cerf. “A new international battle is brewing – a battle that will determine the future of the internet.”

Fear the ‘Butterfly Effect’

Cerf, along with Obama administration officials and lawmakers, said what is most dangerous is the possibility of a series of incremental changes made to oversight of the internet – versus a full-out, frontal assault – since small changes and tinkering may be more accepted in some parts of the world. Arab states’ proposal, for example, to change the rules’ definition of “telecommunications” to include “processing” or computer functions, McDowell said, would “swallow the internet’s functions with only a tiny edit of existing rules.” Or, China’s desire to create a system whereby internet users are registered using their IP addresses could curtail freedoms.

“There’s a notion in chaos theory called the ‘butterfly affect,’” Cerf said. “The butterfly waves its wings in Indonesia and we have a tsunami somewhere else. I do worry that small changes” could severely damage the internet.

Civil society groups in the US, India, Brazil, Egypt, China, Kenya, Poland, and elsewhere have co-signed a letter urging all stakeholders to be a part of this process and for the ITU to be transparent in their negotiations.

A number of US lawmakers sponsored a resolution introduced in the Congress Wednesday, expressing the sense of Congress “to preserve and advance the multistakeholder governance model under which the Internet has thrived” … “to promote a global Internet free from government control.”

Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican, said he expects the resolution to move swiftly to the House floor.

The hearing occurred on the same day on which the ITU called for greater international co-operation between governments and the information and communications technology industry to tackle global cybersecurity threats after the discovery of the Flame malware by Kaspersky Lab in Russia. Kaspersky experts said Flame can copy and steal data and audio files, record all sounds within a computer microphone’s vicinity, read documents and emails, and grab passwords and logins. The virus can even communicate with other surrounding computers via Bluetooth, without an internet connection. Many computers in the Middle East have been affected. It’s expected a nation state is likely behind Flame.

Liza Porteus Viana may be reached at lizapviana@gmail.com.

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