Although some have dismissed fears that other countries will use international telecommunications negotiations later this year to hand the United Nations a greater role in governing the Internet, the United States government doesn’t seem to be taking any chances.
Internet companies, civil liberties advocates, and lawmakers have been debating the true extent of the threat from what The New York Times facetiously called the United Nations’ “Web-snatching black helicopters,” but newly released proposals from the State Department indicate U.S. officials have taken those fears to heart.
The United States will be one of many countries to send delegates to the World Conference on International Telecommunications in December to negotiate updates to International Telecommunications Regulations, or ITRs, which were last negotiated in 1988.
The ITRs, which are overseen by the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union, mainly addressed older telecom technologies like telephone service. Some countries have expressed interest in expanding their scope to cover Internet issues because the Internet is playing a larger role in communications in general.
The issue may smack of a U.N. conspiracy theory, but now the State Department has officially outlined plans focused almost entirely on preventing a more government-centered system of Internet governance.
“The Internet has evolved to operate in a separate and distinct environment that is beyond the scope or mandate of the ITRs or the International Telecommunication Union,” and that’s the way it should stay, the State Department said in its proposals for the world conference.
Specifically, U.S. officials argue that nongovernmental organizations like the World Wide Web Consortium and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which oversee things like domain names, are still best suited to handle the technical workings of an increasingly global Internet.
“As a decentralized network of networks, the Internet has achieved global interconnection without the development of any international regulatory regime,” the State Department argued. “The development of such a formal regulatory regime could risk undermining its growth.”
It’s a battle that’s unlikely to go away as countries around the world see the current Internet governance system as too U.S.-centric.
The ITU says it has no plans to expand its authority to the Internet. But American officials, prodded by open-Internet groups and companies, still worry that individual countries could try to the use the negotiations, which define the ITU’s authority, to shake up the way international Internet issues have been handled.
Russian government officials, among others, have suggested that December’s negotiations be used to give governments a greater role in regulating the Internet. And countries like Cuba, Ghana, Bolivia, and Venezuela have criticized the current system of governing the Internet as too reliant on the U.S. and its allies.
But U.S. officials don’t appear ready to give any ground. At the world conference, U.S. negotiators will push for minimal changes to the existing rules. In fact, most of the “limited revisions” the U.S. will call for entail explicitly limiting ITU authority and affirming that free-market principles are better than regulation.
“The United States will not support proposals that would increase the exercise of control over Internet governance or content,” State Department officials wrote in their proposals. “The United States will oppose efforts to broaden the scope of the ITRs to empower any censorship of content or impede the free flow of information and ideas.”
U.S. technology companies have pushed back on any suggestions of a greater government role in oversight of the Internet. Google, for example, has expressed concern over government policies on issues such as piracy and censorship.
And Congress is paying attention as well. Last week the House unanimously approved a resolution calling on the U.S. to oppose any new Internet regulations, and companies are pushing the Senate to adopt a similar measure.
“We believe it would be a mistake of historic proportions if government or multi-government institutions were permitted to obviate or duplicate the multi-stakeholder process in place today,” USTelecom President Walter McCormick wrote in a letter to senators last week.
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