A gathering of United Nations diplomats overseas has some in the U.S. worried about a potential takeover of the Internet by foreign powers – with others claiming such fears are wildly overhyped.
The obscure branch of the U.N. at issue is the International Telecommunication Union, whose 193 member states include the U.S. and which was convening this week in Geneva. The ostensible purpose of the conference is to seek consensus for an updating of the last set of international telecom regulations, known as ITRs, which were issued in 1988.
“There is general agreement that the ITRs need to be updated to reflect the significant changes that have taken place in the information and communication technology sector in the past 24 years," International Telecommunication Union spokesman Gary Fowlie said in an email to Fox News.
But Robert McDowell, a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission, has been warning that the conference is a moment of great peril for industrialized and Third World countries alike. In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal and a subsequent interview with Fox Business, McDowell accused the so-called “BRIC” countries – Brazil, Russia, India, and China – and their allies among developing nations of trying to seize the moment to strengthen international regulation of the Internet. Such a development, McDowell claimed, would imperil the Web’s historic role as an outlet for free expression and economic growth.
“It's everything from economic regulation of the Internet to the administration of domain names, like .com and .org,” McDowell told Fox Business last week, as well as “engineering standards, cyber-security, and privacy, among many other ideas. ... There are a variety of motivations, I think, driving this, including wanting local phone companies, sometimes owned by local governments, to be able to charge on a per-click basis for certain websites.”
An appointee of President George W. Bush, McDowell suggested the forces aligned behind such goals are more organized and pro-active than opponents of such measures, like the U.S. “That is very troublesome,” he said.
Fowlie disputed such claims. “(International Telecommunication Union) members do not want heavy-handed regulation,” he told Fox News, adding, “There are no proposals on the table that would impact access to or freedom of the Internet."
The Geneva conference is part of a series of meetings to be held in advance of a conference in Dubai in December, known as the World Conference on International Telecommunications. Fowlie cited an unsigned memorandum, said to be have been prepared by Obama administration officials, that cast doubt on the conference producing the ominous scenarios McDowell envisioned.
The memo, dated Jan. 23, states that in January 2011, U.S. officials harbored “great and widespread concern" that the conference "would be a battle over investing the (International Telecommunication Union) with explicit Internet governance authority.”
However, American diplomats, the memo maintains, succeeded in “narrowing the focus" of the conference by emphasizing the administration’s "deregulatory position at every opportunity.” The memo concludes that the likelihood of the conference posing any “foundational” threats to the freedom of the Internet “seems low at this time.”
At a symposium on Internet governance sponsored by the Brookings Institution in January, various Obama administration officials – while not addressing the conference directly – nonetheless declared their opposition to tougher international regulation of the Internet.
“An Internet constrained by international treaty will stifle the innovators and entrepreneurs who have been, and will continue to be, responsible for its growth,” warned Larry Strickling, an official with the Department of Commerce. “If there's a heavy-handed approach that's taken to regulate (the Internet), it reduces the value for everyone,” agreed Karen Kornbluh, U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Danny Weitzner, deputy chief technology officer at the White House, spoke about foreign efforts to regulate the Internet in the most sardonic terms.
“This multi-stakeholder process -- the process that the Internet community has pioneered in many ways -- I think works based on the fact that people have things they need to do together,” he told the Brookings audience. “It doesn't really work when one people tells someone else what to do. That's kind of the Marx command-and-control model.”
“If we've agreed on one thing," he went on to say, “it's that we don't actually have any other model. We might like to think we do. People who want, you know, to build larger buildings in Geneva, or fill existing ones, you know, might, might like to do something else, for those reasons.”
A request by Fox News to speak with Weitzner, or someone else in the White House technology office, was declined by the White House, which responded with an automated email containing a phone number which, when dialed, led the caller to an automated welcome message for the Department of State.