Does Free Speech Matter When The Internet Itself Is In Danger Of Breaking?

    December 14, 2012

The ITU conference has one more day to go before it winds down on December 14. Until then, a proposal that would lead to governmental regulation of the Internet could be put forward despite some countries taking similar proposals off the table. The House and Senate have already publicly opposed any such outcome, and now the Obama administration is adding its voice to the chorus.

In a post on the White House blog, the Obama administration stated clearly that it does not support any new rules that pertain to regulating the Internet. Instead, it says that the conference should only be about “updating a public telecommunications treaty to reflect today’s market-based realities.”

Do you agree with the White House? Should the Internet be kept out of the ITU negotiations? Let us know in the comments.

The administration then goes into what it hopes to get out of the conference, including an expansion of mobile device accessibility in developing countries:

From the start, the U.S. position has been clear: the WCIT should be about updating a public telecommunications treaty to reflect today’s market-based realities — not a new venue to create regulations on the Internet, private networks, or the data flowing across them.

Today, over 85 percent of the world has access to mobile phones because of modern, competitive marketplaces. And while much is left to be done connecting more to this digital future, the solution is not counterproductive regulation at the national or international level. By supporting principles that expand telecommunications infrastructure to underserved and developing populations, the WCIT can play a valuable role in ensuring technological innovation continues for the benefit of all.

But we should not confuse telecommunications infrastructure with the information that traverses it. The global consensus for a free and open Internet is overwhelming. Millions in the United States and around the world have already added their voices to this conversation, and their position is clear: they do not want the WCIT to govern the Internet or legitimize more state control over online content. Our Administration could not agree more – and will not support a treaty that sets that kind of precedent.

That position unites our Administration, industry, civil society, both parties and houses of Congress, and stakeholders around the world. Communications technologies and the Internet are essential to economic growth and global prosperity. The world deserves a WCIT outcome that delivers more connectivity without undue regulations. The United States will remain a fierce advocate for those principles at the Conference, and beyond.

The US government’s efforts to keep the Internet out of ITU negotiations may be in vain though. Early Thursday morning, a majority of nations cast a non-binding vote in favor of more Internet control. The vote was intended to get a “feel for the room,” but the results were clear – a majority of nations don’t exactly agree with the US when it comes to Internet sovereignty.

Do you think the US has a chance of maintaining its position at the ITU conference? Does the recent “non-vote” raise red flags? Let us know in the comments.

That being said, the US does have a powerful ally in the EU. On November 30, the European Parliament issued a resolution that similarly argued against letting the UN have control of the Internet. Here’s some of the more prominent arguments in the resolution:

Believes that the ITU, or any other single, centralised international institution, is not the appropriate body to assert regulatory authority over either internet governance or internet traffic flows;

Stresses that some of the ITR reform proposals would negatively impact the internet, its architecture, operations, content and security, business relations and governance, as well as the free flow of information online;

Believes that, as a consequence of some of the proposals presented, the ITU itself could become the ruling power over aspects of the internet, which could end the present bottom-up, multi-stakeholder model; expresses concern that, if adopted, these proposals may seriously affect the development of, and access to, online services for end users, as well as the digital economy as a whole; believes that internet governance and related regulatory issues should continue to be defined at a comprehensive and multi-stakeholder level;

Calls on the Member States to prevent any changes to the International Telecommunication Regulations which would be harmful to the openness of the internet, net neutrality, the end-to-end principle, universal service obligations, and the participatory governance entrusted to multiple actors such as governments, supranational institutions, non-governmental organisations, large and small businesses, the technological community and internet users and consumers at large;

Getting back to the US, It’s nice that the legislative and executive branch of our government can agree on something for once, but the White House’s opposition to any new ITU treaties is somewhat hypocritical. Take for instance the White House’s support of ACTA, an international treaty that would have rewritten the rules of what constitutes fair use on the Internet and regulated the Web to unhealthy degrees. The current administration is also heavily in favor of TPP, another multi-national treaty that would cause similar damage to the Internet.

That being said, those fights are more about the expanding the definition of copyright instead of free speech on the Internet. The two are clearly separate in the eyes of the US. Even copyright stalwarts like the MPAA agree that free speech on the Internet is important. The issue at hand then, however, is not so much free speech, but altering the Internet in such a way that it “breaks.” Whether it be the UN or legislation from lawmakers, the threat to how the very core of the Internet works is very real. Preserving free speech is definitely a priority, but it won’t matter if a bureaucratic body that doesn’t understand how the Internet works gets control of it.

Is it hypocritical for the US to support infrastructural changes to the Internet while opposing the ITU? Or is the ITU more of a threat than other proposed legislation and treaties? Let us know in the comments.