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Part Two: Who Controls the Internet?

Will agencies like the International Telecommunications Union play a role in future development of the World Wide Web?

In part one of our three-part series, we discussed America's attempts to regulate the Internet -- and many Americans are concerned about the Internet moving away from its current governance model, for good reason.

Governance varies around the globe, and one need only look at a highly-restrictive country like China to realize that the Internet doesn’t necessarily have to be free or open in any given country.

Running the Internet, despite being a huge international effort, bears similarity to a grassroots co-op. Those who are most invested in the success of the Internet, such as members of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), and the Internet Society (ISOC), are typically the ones making the decisions that affect the overall scheme of how the Internet works. In other words, the gardeners run the garden.

But for better or worse, new authorities will likely encroach on how the Internet is run. Regulatory authorities can be broadly categorized into three groups: governments that push for control, corporations that push for profit, and individuals that push for freedom. "Regardless of national conditions or market developments, all regulatory authorities will push for control,” a 2012 study released by Gartner stated. There is a constant tug-of-war between these three forces, and in different countries, different mixtures of the forces mold the models of Internet governance seen there.

Chinese citizens, for instance, see a balance somewhere between complete government control and some individual freedom, with virtually no regard for profit. India is mostly balanced between profit and government control, while the U.K. and the U.S. are somewhere in the middle of all three forces. One of the Web's great strengths is its consistency, but some fear that increased divergence from a common mode of governance could balkanize the Internet.

WCIT and Differing Viewpoints on Governance

Getting multiple parties to agree on anything is difficult; but getting the entire world to agree on a subject is a whole different situation, in which simply trying to set an agenda can preclude honest discussion from ever truly starting. This is what happened in December 2012, during the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT).

Aptly named, the conference was billed to be a meeting of most of the world’s nations to discuss a mutually beneficial path forward for communication services, such as mobile telephone networks and the Internet. In the end, 55 of the attending 144 member states chose not to sign the treaty being discussed. Officials of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the United Nations agency that held the conference, expressed “surprise” that the U.S. and many other countries weren't interested in being bound to new provisions on Internet governance.

Months prior to the conference, U.S. Ambassador Terry Kramer made public statements that the Internet should not even be part of discussion at the WCIT; he stated that the U.S. was content with the current multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance.

And after the conference, Kramer announced a “heavy heart and sense of missed opportunity,” lamenting that other issues, such as development of broadband networks in developing countries had not been more thoroughly discussed.

“Instead, the conference got hijacked by a variety of these proposals on the Internet, via spam provisions, cybersecurity provisions, Internet governance, again which are all relevant issues, but they don't belong in this treaty,” Kramer said. “They belong in a multi-stakeholder fora where it’s a true inclusive nature of the dialogue.”

Just like SOPA, PIPA, and CISPA, international treaties around Internet governance began with one subject in mind -- like stopping spam or beefing up security -- and in the end, became more about giving an outside agency more power.

Adoption by Consensus

Though some are concerned about Internet balkanization, Kramer said he’s not as worried about that as an imminent threat.

In the end, the ITU holds no real authority, he said – the discussions and formations of treaties are normative events that organizations can look to for precedents. And the U.S. and 54 other countries decided that the Internet was better off without any of the precedents the ITU was offering.

Despite repeated denials by ITU officials, Kramer said the conference was the agency’s attempt to gain more control over the Internet. According to the aforementioned conclusion found by the 2012 Gartner report on Internet governance, however, everyone at the conference, Kramer included, also attended for that same purpose. Everyone wants more control over the Internet.

Former ITU Counsellor Richard Hill said he shared ITU Secretary General Hamadoun Touré’s sense of surprise following the lack of cooperation from 55 of the ITU’s member states. “If you read the treaty, you see the treaty itself says absolutely nothing about Internet,” he said, adding that the treaty must be applied in accordance with freedom of speech rights mentioned by any government’s constitution -- and that any objections to the ITU’s proposals could not possibly be about restrictions on a free and open Internet.

In fact, Hill said, the ITU was even able to obtain a consensus on the provisions being discussed, because “consensus,” by the ITU’s definition, does not mean unanimity.

“Consensus means absence of formal opposition,” Hill said. “So in this case we have had some formal opposition in the form of saying, ‘We're not going to sign right now.’"

The resolutions were signed by consensus, he said, because no one formally objected to them. And because no one formally objected to the the resolution about Internet, Hill said that resolution has been adopted by consensus.


ITU Confusion

Although Hill initially denied the conference had anything whatsoever to do with the Internet, he adjusted his stance after some discussion. “The conference had everything to do with the Internet transport layer, but nothing to do with the Internet content layer and domain names and addressing,” he said. “I think that’s a fair statement.”

If Hill’s statements are confusing, there shouldn’t be any hard feelings. Even experts, like Milton Mueller, a professor specializing in Internet governance and Internet freedom at Syracuse University, said he couldn’t completely understand what Hill meant. The ITU, Mueller said, can shuffle around with the definition of “consensus” and try to play with semantics to hide what they’re doing, but it doesn’t change anything.


“I think it's pretty much in keeping with my characterization of the ITU as an old bureaucracy that's desperately searching for a way to stay relevant,” he said. “They don't have a clear rationale to what they're doing. They know that they would like to have more regulation because that's what a lot of their member states and sector members would like, but they know that not all of them want that. And they also know that people who object to what they're doing are very powerful and incorporate a very large segment of the Internet industry globally.”

This isn’t the first time the ITU has tried to plant itself back into relevance, either. In 2003 -- and again in 2005 -- there was an event called the World Summit on the Information Society, in which the ITU tried to take over for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Named and Numbers (ICANN). This, Mueller said, would have shifted power away from the multi-stakeholder model toward a more centralized international governance model.

The ITU might still have some work left to do, such as coordinating radio frequencies at the global level, Mueller said, but as for transforming their organization into a kind of global Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is what it looked like the ITU was trying for -- the idea is completely obsolete.

An Uncertain Future

Professor Marvin Sirbu, who specializes in engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, agreed that a multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance is probably a better idea than bringing ICANN under the ITU to form some sort of global Internet enforcement agency.

“I think that's common among people who work in the Internet space,” Sirbu said, adding that bottom-up development is more conducive to innovation and change, and a central enforcement agency could threaten censorship, which could devalue the Internet.

As for Hill’s assertion that the WCIT wouldn’t affect Internet content because it would only affect the Internet transport layer? “Well, that's wrong," Sirbu said. "What's the network neutrality debate all about, except a debate about the extent to which a services provider can, by providing better or worse service to particular content companies, influence the kind of content that's available? You don't have to own the content to have an impact of the content.”

If the government installed stop signs every 19 feet on certain roads, for instance, it couldn't innocently claim that it wasn't affecting traffic because it didn’t touch any of the cars.

Just as with national Internet governance found in the U.S., there’s little reason to believe that agencies like the ITU and its cooperating member states will stop trying to push their particular brand of Internet governance on the rest of the world. With no one giving up, some say the Internet is headed toward extreme balkanization. And while others are more optimistic, the only reliable truth is that the future of the Internet is uncertain.

Stay tuned for part three of our "Who Controls the Internet?" series, where we look at whether increased cooperation between government and Internet activists could lead to a favorable ending for the Web. Visit part one of the series, where we look at regulation in the U.S., here. Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.