European Affairs

Internet Must Stay Free of Intergovernmental Control     Print Email

In the space of half a generation, the Internet has become one of the most important mechanisms on the planet. Every human being, whether aware of it or not, depends upon it for material well being and for broader, non-economic benefits in social, cultural, political, and other realms.The Internet’s unprecedented growth is not the only unusual thing about it.

Equally unusual is the fact that it has emerged without much significant guidance from above — not planned in a conventional sense and not constructed pursuant to comprehensive legal and regulatory strictures. As a result, it is the largest and most successful cooperative venture in history.

The Internet evolved from its origins in Arpanet (a venture sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense) as a result of the efforts of a number of different players — some essentially academic and financially uninterested, some decidedly financially interested, and some in between: an amalgam of volunteers inspired by a very wide range of motivations has created and operates this indispensable network of networks.  One of the truly remarkable things about it is that, despite the enormous capital and operating expenditures required to make it what it is, its value to all of humanity is incalculably greater — and the margin of value over cost grows greater literally every day.

Interconnection is, of course, the single greatest imperative for a network of networks.  And here the absence of governmental or intergovernmental controls is particularly striking.  The physical and economic arrangements necessary for — that in a real sense constitute — interconnection have been worked out through normal adherence to international technical standards and through commercial negotiation.  National governments, let alone international institutions, have not intervened to direct the creation of the controlling technical standards, have not mandated that the standards be observed, and have not prescribed the economic transfers that take place between and among the participating networks.  This approach does not reflect an absence of law.  The laws of property, contract, and tort govern in this system as they do in any commercial realm.  And competition laws restrain at least aggravated refusals to interconnect.  But it does reflect the absence or application of more specialized laws such as, for example, in the U.S. the Communications Act that otherwise governs domestic and foreign telecommunications.

A very important aspect of the absence of closely controlling laws is the ability of the Internet to evolve quickly and freely in response to changes in technology, commercial practice, and consumer preference.  This dynamism is critically important.  Its protection is one of the central concerns of the Internet policies of the United States.  These policies are rooted in the view that nothing should be done that would impair the ability of the Internet to continue to grow and evolve based on the needs and desires of its users.  A different way to say the same thing is that, in the view of U.S. policy, the world’s people should continue to benefit from the efficiencies that advancing technology and business practice make available on an ongoing basis.

Protecting the dynamism of the Internet as one overarching objective can be understood principally, although not exclusively, as an economic proposition.  Protecting freedom of expression and the free flow of information over the Internet is the other principal objective of the United States.  This U.S. policy is fundamental.   It long predates the Internet.  But given the Internet’s unprecedented ability to move information instantaneously without regard to national borders, promoting and defending freedom of expression inevitably has become a more prominent feature of U.S. policy about the Internet, as powerfully articulated in Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s much-remarked speech in January 2010 on Internet freedom.

The concerns about freedom of expression and the free flow of information are grounded in well-established concepts of human rights, but there also are economic bases for promoting the values.   Limitations on the transfer, receipt, and use of information have costs.  There obviously are times when it is reasonable to absorb those costs — for example, for the preservation of aspects of personal privacy or maintenance of trade secrets.  But in such cases, it is clear that any national government that absorbs such costs without appropriate justifications simply reduces its own material prosperity – and ultimately of all governments in our interconnected world.  As a result, U.S. policy is critical of restrictions that have only dubious justifications, and especially critical of restrictions that appear to be essentially political in nature.

And so, in summary, the United States favors the existing multi-stakeholder arrangements that have created and continue to maintain the Internet.  The U.S. does so because these arrangements have been and continue to be effective in maintaining the health of the Internet as an organic proposition and because they have facilitated the Internet’s incalculable value as a channel of information and expression.

It is clear, however, that not all national governments are as comfortable with these arrangements as the U.S. is.  The reasons for this vary quite widely.  Some governments have an understandable concern that something so fundamentally important to their people apparently is outside not only of their control, but of any government or intergovernmental institution.  Some governments have a concern that unwelcome content is being brought across their borders.  And some governments have a concern that the Internet is facilitating unwelcome communications among their own citizens.

These concerns have brought forth a variety of reactions.  The most immediately troubling from the U.S. perspective are those with the most immediate and malign effects.  These include technological efforts to filter out political content broadly defined, intimidation of citizens using the Internet -- and worse.  But whatever the motivation of governments concerned about the Internet, the most common reaction is to seek to remit it to some form of intergovernmental control.

And this is where the International Telecommunication Union comes in.

The ITU is a venerable institution.  It was founded in 1865, which makes it, after the considerably less well known Rhine River Commission, the second-oldest intergovernmental organization in existence.  The ITU is an indispensable institution.  It does a great deal to advance the extent and the efficiency of international communications, most famously and most importantly serving as the organization that coordinates the world’s use of radio frequencies.  The ITU has more than 190 nation-state members and operates under the United Nations’ protocol of ”one nation-one vote.” Many of the member states, especially those of the developing world, look to the ITU as an important source of assistance in advancing their telecommunications sectors.

For reasons, then, of institutional mandate, competence, and governing structure, the ITU is the entity most often nominated to take control of the Internet by governments unsatisfied with the present arrangements.

The United States’ delegation went to the ITU Plenipotentiary meeting in Guadalajara, Mexico, in October 2010 with the aim of maintaining and, where appropriate, strengthening the ITU’s important functions.  We also went to Guadalajara with the strong intention of dissuading national governments from seeking to expand the ITU’s remit beyond useful limits, and especially from asserting additional claims to governance of the Internet.

With the crucial assistance of many other governments, we feel that we largely succeeded.  The conference both reaffirmed the importance of the practical Internet-related assistance the ITU is rendering its members and it defined the ITU’s appropriately limited place in the Internet ecosystem.

As to the former, the Plenipotentiary meeting reinforced the importance of, and further encouraged, the ITU’s ongoing work in Internet-related capacity building and in development and dissemination of best practices.  These are activities that have been particularly valuable to countries that are in the process of developing their capabilities in the information and communications technology sector of their economies.

After considerable discussion, the Plenipotentiary meeting reached a second conclusion establishing the ITU as an important contributor -- but, very critically, only one of many important contributors -- to the development of the Internet.  The relevant language calls for the exploration of ways and means “for greater collaboration and coordination between the ITU and relevant organizations (including, but not limited to [the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers], the [Regional Internet Registries], the [Internet Engineering Task Force], [the Internet Society] and [the World Wide Web Consortium] on the basis of reciprocity.” In the U.S. view, this is an accurate assessment of the ITU’s place.  It is one among many, and the majority of the others are a reflection of the multi-stakeholder universe that has advanced and sustained the development of the Internet.  Stated differently, the multiple resolutions of the Plenipotentiary meeting that contain this language recognize that it would be inappropriate to assign the ITU a role beyond the bounds of its technical competence, let alone to assign it responsibilities for the Internet’s evolving architecture or mechanisms for economic integration.  Given the important roles of these and other institutions, it would be utterly inappropriate to assign the ITU responsibility for “regulating” or “controlling” the Internet.

The significance of the outcome lies in important ways in what it avoids.  Delay is an inevitable consequence of intergovernmental control.  For obvious and usually entirely benign reasons, it takes a very long time for intergovernmental organizations to reach decisions.   That is something entirely inconsistent with the continued organic evolution and growth of the Internet and its continuing contributions to international prosperity and social and personal improvement.

Geopolitical concerns also are integral to concepts of intergovernmental control.  It unfortunately is clear that some nations that favor intergovernmental control of the Internet do so at least in part in the expectation that it would make it easier to recruit others to assist in their efforts at censorship and even political repression.

As noted, many other governments joined with the United States in securing this outcome.  Unsurprisingly, many European nations are among those most anxious to prevent the Internet from falling under intergovernmental control.  The factors, among others, that account for this are the European commitment to democracy and to freedom of expression as well as to a qualified belief that the marketplace will produce satisfactory outcomes more often than not.  Notwithstanding these shared perspectives, there is some unease about the ungoverned nature of the Internet on the part of some European nations.  Given our shared beliefs, it seems likely that the unease arises in part from considerations both philosophical and cultural.  The great American contribution to philosophy, pragmatism, causes Americans to accept beneficent results even if the predicates might appear somewhat disorderly.  We understand that this cultural inheritance is not universal.  But we hope that European governments’ deep commitment to technological progressiveness and to democratic values will cause even those with intellectual reservations to suffer the anomaly in the interest of preserving the benefits that the Internet affords all of us.  This is especially important because, notwithstanding the success achieved in Guadalajara, many countries remain intent on finding ways to assert international control over the Internet.   Preventing this from happening is likely to remain a priority for both the United States and many European nations for the foreseeable future.

Ambassador Philip L. Verveer is the United States Coordinator for International Communications & Information Policy. He spoke at a September 2010 roundtable on telecommunications sponsored by the European Institute, voicing strong U.S. support for the European Union’s new digital agenda.

 
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