Nations prepare to update treaty that could reshape the Internet

Government officials from around the world will descend on Dubai next month to revise a treaty that could have a major effect on the future of the Internet.

The 193 member countries of the United Nation's International Telecommunications Union (ITU) will meet in Dubai to update the International Telecommunications Regulations treaty for the first time since 1988. The treaty governs how telephone calls and other communications traffic are exchanged internationally.


A lot is at stake in the upcoming negotiations: Observers say some of the proposals put forward by countries for the treaty conference could threaten Internet freedom, encourage online censorship and expand a United Nations agency's authority over the Internet.

The treaty negotiations run by the ITU will take place in Dubai over a two-week period from Dec. 3 to Dec. 14. 

Ambassador Terry Kramer, a former Vodafone executive, will lead the 95-person U.S. delegation during the conference. Members of the U.S. delegation include a mix of Obama administration officials and industry representatives from Google, Verizon, AT&T, Cisco, Microsoft and Facebook. Advocacy groups and trade organizations also have representatives on the delegation.

In the run up to the Dubai conference, Kramer has made clear in a series of public appearances that the U.S. is committed to maintaining liberalized markets in the telecom industry and upholding human rights and free speech principles during the treaty negotiations.

U.S. officials and American companies have sounded alarm about proposals that would expand the scope of the treaty so it shifts from regulating telecommunications networks to regulating the exchange of information on the Internet. The U.S. has argued that the scope of the treaty should stay confined to telecommunications networks and not the Internet.

Kramer has said that countries like China and Iran are looking to propose language that could lead to online censorship and government monitoring of Web traffic. These countries say the proposals are intended to protect computer networks from online threats like cyberattacks and spam and to crack down on child pornography, but the methods they suggest to accomplish these ends would allow them to peer into "what information is flowing on the Internet," he said during a recent talk.

Robert Dix, vice president of government affairs at Juniper Networks, said many of the proposals aimed at boosting cybersecurity or information security are simply a "guise" for countries to gain the ability to monitor Web traffic and "suppress the ability for people to share ideas" online. He warns if these proposals were ultimately adopted into the treaty, the "unintended consequence would be to legitimize censorship" at the international level.

Harold Feld, senior vice president of consumer interest group Public Knowledge and member of the U.S. delegation, echoed a similar concern.

"Taking this one step higher to an international fora where we're imposing a set of duties that will be implemented on the ground by many different countries--each with their own different interpretation about how to balance these security concerns against free speech and due process-- that's asking to create accusations of censorship," Feld said.

Kramer and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski have called for cybersecurity to be kept out of the treaty talks entirely, arguing that the Dubai conference is not the appropriate venue to discuss the national security matter. They argue that the multi-stakeholder model should be upheld, where a variety of organizations advise countries on how to beef up the security of their computer systems and networks against malicious viruses and cyberattacks.

At a cybersecurity conference hosted by U.S. Central Command this month, Genachowski argued that cybersecurity rules should not be addressed in an international treaty--period.

"International regulations are simply too broad, too inflexible, and too slow to change to effectively address cybersecurity issues," Genachowski said, according to prepared remarks.

Google rolled out an online advocacy campaign on Tuesday that voiced concerns with some of the treaty proposals and warned that some governments are trying to use the upcoming conference "to regulate the Internet." On the campaign's webpage, Google says that "proposed changes to the treaty could increase censorship and threaten innovation."

The search company also warns that some countries' proposals "would require services like YouTube, Facebook, and Skype to pay new tolls in order to reach people across borders," which would limit people's access to information, especially in developing countries. 

The proposals Google refers to could force websites that provide content--such as Netflix, YouTube, or Facebook--to pay network operators a fee to deliver their content to consumers outside of the country they operate in, according to Larry Downes, an Internet industry analyst. He said the proposals, officially referred to as "sending party network pays" could affect Web companies that provide consumers data-heavy content over Internet networks.

The search company has also charged that the treaty negotiations are taking place behind closed doors, shutting out the public from having a say in the discussions.

"Only governments have a vote at the ITU, and some of them are trying to use a closed-door meeting in December to increase censorship and regulation online," a Google spokesperson said in an email to The Hill. "Although the ITU has helped the world develop telephone networks and radio spectrum, it is the wrong place to make decisions about the future of the Internet."

Four representatives from Google are on the 95-person delegation representing the U.S. at the conference--more than any other company.

The U.S. has also raised concern about how the treaty proposals would affect the management of the Internet. Some countries are reportedly submitting proposals that attempt to give the ITU more authority over the Internet.

The Internet is currently overseen by a variety of public and private organizations, not one single entity.

Treaty language submitted by Russia that was publicly leaked proposed to strip the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a non-governmental organization, of "some, most or all" of its authorities, according to Downes. ICANN, for example, is in charge of assigning domain names -- or Web addresses -- to websites.

Downes says the Russian proposal suggests that the ITU should assume those authorities instead.

Congress has made it clear that the existing Internet governance model should be upheld. Both the Senate and the House have passed resolutions directing the U.S. government to oppose international efforts to increase the ITU's authority over the Internet.

But the ITU says there has been a lot of misinformation swirling in the media about the treaty.

Sarah Parkes, a spokeswoman for the ITU, said claims that the treaty will promote censorship and threaten free speech online are unfounded because the "protection of people and their right to communicate online is already enshrined in treaties that take precedence over anything that we will discuss in Dubai."

A treaty proposal needs to have "massive support" from member countries in order to be included in the final version, Parkes argued. "You only need a small amount of dissension in the room for a [proposal] to be dropped," she said.

Parkes also rebutted claims that the treaty would change the way the Internet is governed.

"There's nothing that's coming up in this conference that touches on Internet governance or proposes changing the current mandate of the organizations that run the Internet," she said.