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US to oppose plans for UN control of the internet

Warwick Ashford

The US has confirmed it will resist efforts by China, Russia and their allies to put the internet under the control of the United Nations.

The confirmation came in a statement issued by the US Department of State on US proposals to be submitted to the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in December.

The WCIT, convened by the UN's International Telecommunications Union (ITU), will review and potentially revise the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs) set in 1988.

As part of that review, some ITU members are seeking to establish for the first time ITU dominion over important functions of multi-stakeholder internet governance entities such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann).

"The US is concerned that proposals by some other governments could lead to greater regulatory burdens being placed on the international telecom sector, or perhaps even extended to the internet sector - a result the US would oppose," the US statement said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin supports  the idea of giving the ITU greater control over the internet, according to the BBC.

In 2011 he said he was keen to discuss "establishing international control over the internet" using the monitoring and supervisory capabilities of the ITU – a position supported by China and India, according to Russian reports.

The ITU does not publish submissions by each country, but WCITleaks.org has posted proposals leaked to it, including a submission from Russia suggesting the ITU could become responsible for allocating at least some of the internet's addresses, currently overseen by Icann.

But Terry Kramer, the head of the US delegation to the WCIT said: “We will not support any effort to broaden the scope of the ITRs to facilitate any censorship of content or blocking the free flow of information and ideas.

“The United States also believes that the existing multi-stakeholder institutions, incorporating industry and civil society, have functioned effectively and will continue to ensure the health and growth of the internet and all of its benefits.”

The US official WCIT delegation, to be confirmed in mid-September, is to be made up of experts from US government agencies and the private sector, including industry and civil society.

"This reflects the multi-stakeholder approach that has been a hallmark of internet development and governance," the US statement said.

In February, a commissioner of the US Federal Communications Commission warned that upending the consensus-driven private sector multi-stakeholder model with a new regulatory treaty is likely to partition the internet as some countries would inevitably choose to opt out.

"A Balkanised internet would be devastating to global free trade and national sovereignty. It would impair internet growth most severely in the developing world but also globally as technologists are forced to seek bureaucratic permission to innovate and invest. This would also undermine the proliferation of new cross-border technologies, such as cloud computing," Robert McDowell wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

According to McDowell, any attempts to expand intergovernmental powers over the internet should be turned back, no matter how incremental or seemingly innocuous.

"Modernisation and reform can be constructive, but not if the end result is a new global bureaucracy that departs from the multi-stakeholder model," he wrote.

McDowell warned that proponents of internet regulation only need to secure a simple majority of the 193 member states to codify their radical and counterproductive agenda.

"Unlike the UN Security Council, no country can wield a veto in ITU proceedings. With this in mind, some estimate that approximately 90 countries could be supporting intergovernmental net regulation - a mere seven short of a majority," he wrote.

But the ITU has made it clear that any changes to the treaty must have unanimous support, and it would block members trying to put any matter to a vote.

"We never vote because voting means winners and losers and you can't afford that," Hamadoun Toure, the ITU's secretary-general told the BBC.

The ITU conference will take place in Dubai from 3 to 12 December "Whatever one single country does not accept will not pass," he said.

However, the International Cyber Security Protection Alliance (ICSPA) believes a move to a more regulated environment could be achieved by stealth long before any new treaty is enacted.

Members of the ITU that supported internet regulation could, country by country, adopt national policies that are consistent with that thinking, said John Lyons, ICSPA CEO.

It does not need a UN treaty for a country to impose its own type of regulation, so change could be effected gradually until it becomes the dominant way of doing things, he told Computer Weekly.

"That is the great danger, and if you look at the membership of the ITU, there are several countries I suspect would be among the first to implement that type of regulatory regime," he said.

However, Lyons said many of these countries are still developing, which is why it is important for the UK, US and their allies to invest in supporting cyber development and defence to instil the ideal of a free and fair internet.


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