In the wake of the ITU’s World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai, we now have a campaign to de-fund the ITU. What’s more, two House subcommittees will be holding a joint hearing to examine “international efforts to regulate the Internet” February 5. There are legitimate reasons to discuss both future ITU funding and international Internet governance, but it looks as if these two initiatives won’t be constructive.
A lot of people invested tons of money and effort to characterize the ITU’s WCIT, which was organized to revise the 1988 International Telecommunication Regulations, as an attempt to regulate or “take over” the Internet. That Godzilla-sized threat quickly shriveled to the size of a small, squashable bug in December, as the US and its supporters got the ITU to accept almost every U.S. demand to keep the telecom regulations away from the Internet. As noted in a earlier blog post here, the revised ITRs not only do not “take over” the Internet, they say nothing about the Internet at all. And still, the US and 54 allies refused to sign it, because they objected to a nonbinding resolution which allowed the ITU to keep discussing Internet governance. In the meantime, the operation, governance and use of the Internet has not changed one bit. Nor will it change as a result of the WCIT, because the ITU has utterly no leverage over Internet standards, Internet operations, Internet Protocol number resources or domain names. Which demonstrates clearly just how tangential to Internet governance the whole WCIT process was to begin with.
And yet, wasn’t it satisfying to have a clear, identifiable enemy of Internet freedom? Especially when that enemy is not “us,” but “them.” Instead of a bunch of squabbling domestic constituencies (copyright holders, social media companies, privacy advocates, law enforcement agencies, free expression advocates), we had a collection of disreputable foreign powers! If there’s one thing we can all agree on it is that authoritarian countries like China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and Venezuela are enemies of Internet freedom. Right, left and center can all rally around that flag. Hooray!
This target of convenience is just too good to give up. So why not prolong it indefinitely?
In English we have the expression “beating a dead horse” when people insist on talking about something that doesn’t matter. Normal usage of the phrase implies that further discussion is futile. But in a political environment, flogging dead horses can have tremendous symbolic value (as long as no one notices that the beast is dead). If the dead horse is a demonized ITU or some other embodiment of evil, the beater ostentatiously proves that he is on the side of Right and Goodness. Both the House hearing and the campaign to defund the ITU seem to be motivated by a desire to give what is actually a dead horse the appearance of life so that various political actors can be seen energetically beating it.
The Defund the ITU website, for example, boldly assserts that “the ITU… attempted to seize control of the Internet.” “Their goal was a coup: to overthrow the open and transparent system of Internet governance that ensures the Internet’s freedom and accessibility.” The site claims that “The ITU is spending more than $180M/year to oppose the Internet.” In fact, $180 million is the total budget of the ITU; I don’t think “opposing the internet” is even a line item. But who cares? Let’s not spoil the fun of targeting a worldwide conspiracy to control the Internet. Let’s pretend that “opposing the Internet” is the ITU’s entire mission and that it poses a threat so strong it requires urgent responses.
Likewise, the Republican chairman of the House subcommittee on Communications and Technology, Greg Walden, said he is “very concerned” about the outcome of the Dubai conference” because “it could curtail the free flow of information around the world.” How, exactly? Probably Rep. Walden has no idea what is in the ITRs, either before or after they were revised. If he is worried about the free flow of information he will search the ITRs in vain for any applicable language; he might do better to inquire into US government responses to the revival of Kim Dotcom’s Mega business in New Zealand.
There are, however, legitimate reasons to discuss both future ITU funding and “International efforts to regulate the Internet.” Currently there are not many international efforts to regulate the Internet. ACTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which unfortunately bind copyright protection to trade, can be classified as such. The UN Office of Drugs and Crime recently revealed that it has an international protocol for tracking people online – that might be worth paying attention to. The nexus between international trade agreements and censorship/content restrictions might be worth discussing. The continued reform of ICANN with respect to its accountability, or the de-nationalization of the IANA contract are also hot topics in global internet governance.
There are also dozens of national efforts to regulate the internet, ranging from data retention laws to calls for strengthened wiretapping laws that apply to social media to national cybersecurity and critical infrastructure protection proposals. And of course, when the US engages in these forms of regulation, the effects are often extra-territorial. So, there’s that.
Is it unrealistic to expect Congressional hearings to have open, substantive discussions anymore?
Similarly, there are good reasons to review and reconsider our participation in the ITU-T standards process. Far from being a gigantic menace to internet freedom, the ITU-T, which develops standards for telecommunications, is tottering on the edge of irrelevancy. Do we abandon this forum? Would that leave it unguarded to the Chinese and other counter-hegemonic states – who might abuse it to give domestic standards a patina of international legitimacy – or do we keep our foot in that fire? Not a simple choice.
If Rep. Walden wants to engage with Internet governance issues honestly and constructively, he needs someone from the Internet Governance Project in his hearing. If he wants to be seen beating an effigy of the devil, on the other hand, he needn’t bother to call. As long as the important problems of global Internet governance are reduced to fending off the ITU, we will never make progress.