While U.S. officials continue to raise red flags about possible efforts by other countries to regulate the Internet, they had a difficult time Tuesday identifying what those actual threats may be.
Both government and industry officials have voiced concern that proposals to increase governmental regulation of the Internet may be offered at the International Telecommunication Union's World Conference on International Telecommunications in December, where members of the U.N. agency will meet to consider changes to international telecommunications regulations.
"Some proposals put forward could in some ways ... affect the ability of the Internet to grow and evolve," Sally Wentworth, senior manager for public policy at the Internet Society, said at a forum on the issue sponsored by the Congressional Internet Caucus.
Wentworth and other stakeholders said these proposals could take a number of forms, including changes to the definition of some terms. One of the few specific problematic proposals identified so far was offered recently by a group of Arab countries and would broaden the definition of "telecommunications" in a way that could include Internet communications, said David Gross, a partner with the Wiley Rein law firm and former coordinator for telecom policy at the State Department.
"That term could be reasonably read to extend to things we believe are Net related," Gross said.
Philip Corwin with the Internet Commerce Association pressed for more specific examples of concerns that could emerge out of the ITU meeting in Dubai, asking whether it could include engineering standards that could make it easier for governments to control and censor the Internet, efforts to take over some domain name management functions, or the creation of an international universal service fund to expand access to broadband. "What should we really be worried about if things go the wrong way in Dubai," Corwin said.
Federal Communications Commissioner Robert McDowell said it's "all of the above."
U.S. officials have made it clear that they would oppose any effort to allow for the ITU or another U.N. organization to exert authority over the Internet. "We do not think the United Nations is the place for the day-to-day operations" of the Internet, Richard Beaird, the State Department's senior deputy U.S. coordinator for international communications and information policy.
U.S. officials told a House committee last week that they have so far managed to head off any efforts to give the ITU or any other international body direct governmental authority over the Internet but said they would be watching for more obscure proposals that could impact the Internet.
McDowell warned that even if supporters of greater governmental control over the Internet fail at the ITU meeting in Dubai, they will likely continue to press the issue in other forums. "Many countries are patient, and are pushing for incrementalism," he said.