Published November 01, 2012
Better enjoy Facebook while you can.
A U.N.-sponsored conference next month in Dubai will propose new regulations and restrictions for the Internet, which critics say will censor free speech, levy tariffs on e-commerce, and even force companies to clean up their “e-waste” and make gadgets that are better for the environment.
Concerns about the closed-door event have sparked a Wikileaks-style info-leaking site, and led the State Department on Wednesday to file a series of new proposals or tranches seeking to ensure “competition and commercial agreements -- and not regulation” as the meeting's main message.
Terry Kramer, the chief U.S. envoy to the conference, says the United States is against sanctions and believes management of the Internet by one central organization goes against free speech.
“[Doing nothing] would not be a terrible outcome at all,” Kramer said recently. “We need to avoid suffocating the Internet space through well-meaning but overly prescriptive proposals that would seek to control content.”
The conference will be run by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a U.N. agency that has typically provided a welcome service by making sure that the Internet works across countries. Many of its guidelines were first instituted in 1988. Most haven’t changed since then.
The World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) is the first such meeting since those guidelines were created, and businesses are taking it seriously: U.S. delegates will include representatives from AT&T, Cisco, Facebook, GoDaddy, and dozens more.
To dispel concerns, the ITU played damage control in early October.
“There are no proposals submitted to create new international regulatory agencies, or mechanisms, and hence no proposals to put ITU in control of the Internet!” said Malcolm Johnson, ITU's telecommunication standardization bureau director, in a written statement.
Despite those reassurances, key experts remain concerned.
The American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN) is one of just five groups that assign numbers to Internet names, a key part of making the web tick. Cathy Handley, executive director of government affairs at ARIN and a conference attendee, said the meeting is meant to exert some sort of controls.
“Some of the proposals that could clearly have consequences address the high cost of mobile roaming, taxation of calls, issues associated with the routing of calls, cybersecurity and combating spam,” Handley told FoxNews.com. “A major concern is with any attempt to make the International Telecommunication Regulations prescriptive and force regulation.”
Indeed, the same statement in which Johnson urges calm mentions a possible vote for more regulation.
Josh King, an attorney with legal advice site Avvo.com, said the ITU will make stronger proposals at a 2015 conference in Dubai. For now, the goal is to restructure so the telecommunication companies in each country have more control over what is on the Internet.
“The open, multi-stakeholder approach that has led to the massive growth of the Internet over the last 15 years [would] be replaced with a system of top-down, international regulation,” he told FoxNews.com.
Michael Embrich, a spokesperson for Internet advocacy group TestPAC, defines that goal as a way to level the playing field on the Internet and give developing countries a fair shot. Smaller countries want more regulations to help them compete with the U.S, he said.
At the conference, the ITC will even propose regulations that go offline, further than the Web.
Emrich said one proposal, to be funded by $53B in U.S. dollars, is to connect North and South America using a massive telecom pipeline. Another rule would cover cell phone batteries.
“They would like to implement a law that would require all makers of rechargeable batteries to make them 30 percent smaller and more efficient. They claim to have a study that says they can do this though proper regulations and requirements,” Embrich said.
Handley told FoxNews.com that it is likely some of the proposals at WCIT will be enacted over the next five years. What were formerly considered rough guidelines will become more precise governances, she said.
“The impact will be determined by the proposals that are adopted,” Handley said. “[Previous regulations have been viewed as] high-level principles, which means that countries have been able to implement them as they have seen needed.”
“While the worst-case scenario isn’t likely, there’s a decent chance that some of these regulations will go into effect,” King agreed.
Even if the ITU adds new rules, it won’t be able to enforce Internet governance on a global stage, Emrich said. Iran now has a closed Internet, and the only recourse the ITU has is to impose sanctions, for example.
“India has also recently imposed harsh censorship on their Internet users that go against the recommendation of practices of the WCIT,” he told FoxNews.com. “The WCIT has shown no evidence that they will try to stop it.”
Vivek Mohan, a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and a former Microsoft attorney, says the talks should be taken seriously, even if there might not be any short-term impact.
“This is a fight for life for the ITU. If they don't assert authority and jurisdiction, they will become irrelevant,” he told FoxNews.com.