Let’s keep this dead horse alive, so we can beat it some more

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.


7 comments

  1. Paul Wilson

    Milton Mueller I presume?

    You raise some worthy questions, because for many observers in processes like this, the sooner they can feel free NOT to be present, and to allocate time and resource to other priorities, the better. For most of us actually, there is no sense in which our considerable efforts on WCIT represented a consensual smokescreen or conspiratorial false alarm, as you suggest.

    For all of its insights, your post fails to distinguish the ITU as an institution from its Member States, or to mention that both before and during the WCIT processes there were plenty of proposals for ITRs that *would* govern the Internet. Proposals for taxes on content providers, over and above what they already pay to carriers; for global Internet QoS standards; for Governmental control over Internet routing; or for new cost-settlement systems; but we also know that others could hit the floor for the first time during the event. During the preceding WTSA event for instance, a proposal was made for the ITU to become an IP address registry, and may have held sway if not for Secretary General Hamadoun Toure’s timely intervention. Do these proposals not appear to you as having important Internet Governance impacts?

    As for the dead horse analogy, I suggest that many member states – and critically in fact, a majority of them – would find that to be misinformed or offensive. The ITU has gained huge respect both for its proud history and its ongoing work particularly in developing countries, and it appears natural to many that it should be tasked with any new responsibilities which are related in any way with telecommunications. In the case of Internet-related responsibilities, the existing established structures and alternatives are still not well understood, unfortunately, and strong proposals to reinvent those wheels will be with us for some time to come.

    Finally, I have to note the distinct “I told you so” tone in your claims that nothing was ever going to happen at WCIT, but a certain lack of links to where you may have done so. I’m interested to see those; If they said, “nothing can or will happen” then they would have been incorrect, but hopefully they will come true one day. By which time we will hopefully all be on that same page, and working together on those “important problems of global Internet Governance”.

    Paul Wilson
    APNIC

    • Milton Mueller

      Paul,
      I agree, it is all about how we allocate time, where are the priorities, and how one assesses relative risks.
      It is astounding for you to tell me that I don’t distinguish between ITU and its member states! Because that is precisely the distinction my argument is based on – and it is avoidance of that distinction that fuels your own and others’ ITU phobia. Yes, there are a lot of individual nation-states in the world with very bad intentions for free expression generally and the Internet specifically. We identify those threats with a clear, unbiased eye. Some states make bad proposals to the ITU – and in other forums, such as the IETF. Does that mean the IETF is the center of a global conspiracy to take over the Internet? In both cases, the worst proposals have little to no chance of gaining the consensus required. The ITU is an intergovernmental organization that includes a lot of authoritarian states – as any intergovernmental organization must. It also includes a lot of states who are willing and able to resist those initiatives. The authoritarian states are the problem, not the ITU per se.
      IGP blog has for years consistently called attention to the fact that these states do not need an ITU agreement to censor content and regulate the ISPs under their jurisdiction. By focusing on the ITU as the alleged source of the problem, you divert attention away from the actual problem, the problem of territorial nation-states and their hostility to the Internet and the more liberal, globalized communications-information regime that has emerged around it. Focusing on the ITU also conveniently glosses over the problem of state control posed by governments such as the US, the UK and Australia, which posture as liberal and freedom loving in these ITU battles but often pursue domestic and transnational policy measures which are anything but. As I said in the article, as long as the important problems of global Internet governance are reduced to fending off the ITU, we will never make progress towards true Internet freedom.
      Insofar as the ITU constitutes a threat, it is a threat that must be understood in a broader context of other threats, and weighed in its relative risk. We believe the ITU is a relatively weak actor, declining in authority and wealth. Some people love elevating the ITU threat above its actual level, because they are more interested in defending existing IG institutions against putative competitors than in advancing goals of Internet freedom.
      If you are looking for the “I told you so’s” they are not hard to find – please review the 4-part series on WCIT which ran in this blog from May to July last year. Click on the “archives” button of the navigation bar.

    • Andre

      The ITU has gained huge respect both for its proud history and its ongoing work particularly in developing countries,

      That is a mild insult.

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  4. Andrew McConachie

    “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.”

    Who are these people and what do you see as their actual motivations? I agree with your assessment that the threat level of the ITU has been needlessly elevated, but I have a hard time identifying the disingenuous actors that you claim are elevating this threat level. I perceive the people behind the petition to defund the ITU as well intentioned albeit misinformed concerned netizens. Do you perceive them as disingenuous in their convictions? Are you implying in this article that the people/orgs involved in demonizing the ITU have motivations or interests that they’re not being forthright about?

    • McTim

      WHOIS is your friend here.

      The people who would like to defund the ITU are not misinformed netizens, they just don’t like funding (via their taxes) an effort they have to spend other monies on to oppose.