The 14th Plenipotentiary (“plenipot”) Conference, a global meeting (0) of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), is underway in South Korea and has the potential to change the operating norms of the Internet. The ITU was originally chartered to coordinate international telegraph communications 150 years ago and is now part of the United Nations. The organization coordinates the international use of spectrum, satellites, and technical standards for communications. There are many reasons why this meeting is important for American stakeholders, not the least of which is the American Internet economy. The US relies on foreign markets and an unregulated Internet regime to deliver its third largest export (1), digital goods and services. Moreover the ITU is attempting to shift the model of Internet governance away from the current globally-distributed, decentralized multistakeholder model to one similar to the UN, in which authoritarian governments such as Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia will have greater control of the Internet in their countries.
Among other things, the ITU is calling for interconnection to be regulated on a global level and a new regime of ”sender-party-pays” to be implemented across the globe. Such a regime would charge websites for crossing the border from one country to another (similar to telephone termination). Presently most Internet traffic ”peers”; that is, as long as traffic levels are equal, traffic is exchanged on a settlement-free or zero cost basis. Mandating a global sender-party-pays system would mean that traffic originating in one country would have to pay a fee to cross the border into other countries. The effect of such regimes is that they encourage traffic to stay ”on-net,” or in-country. Supporters say these fees are needed to fund broadband infrastructure, but the proposal would effectively create an entrance barrier against traffic from foreign entities. The ITU has promised ”open access” to information and proposals of the meeting, and readers can also see the documents posted by participants at WCITLeaks (2).
Unfortunately, proposals to expand the ITU’s mandate are nothing new. Some may recall the the ITU’s World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) meeting (3) two years ago, when the US and its allies refused to vote for any ITU proposals that allowed for government control of the Internet. For a detailed account of the event, read Reporters Without Borders (4) and Eli Dorado (5).
However if the US attempts another rally in South Korea, there may be fewer supporters. As detailed in a report (6) by the New America Foundation, there are now at least 30 ”swing states” that could support expanded ITU jurisdiction. To be sure, there are a variety of reasons for this shift, but chief among them is the ongoing debate over Internet regulation in the US. The Obama administration’s support of net neutrality and a variety of US interest groups’ and politicians’ advocacy of regulating the Internet as a utility under Title II (7) have given other countries the justification they need to change their position in favor of increased government control of the Internet.
In their brazen support for flawed policies such as Title II, advocacy groups Public Knowledge, New America Foundation, and Center for Democracy and Technology have inspired not only authoritarian governments but also the ITU to support utility regulation of the Internet. The situation is so extreme that these advocacy groups have submitted a document (8) to the ITU urging them not to pursue global regulation of Internet interconnection. However these groups still support such polices at home, damaging the credibility of the US on this issue. To add to the difficulty, many of these groups oppose the bottom-up business models (9) that countries need to encourage Internet adoption and to earn revenue to pay for infrastructure, such as zero rating, sponsored data, and specialized services. The underlying theme is whether the Internet can be preserved in a decentralized way where parties can negotiate traffic, interconnection, and subscription contracts freely, or whether governments decide how the Internet will work and then impose a one-size-fits-all regime on the entire system.
The US has spent the last decade telling the world that the Internet should not be regulated like a utility, and dozens of nations joined the US in this position just two years ago. If the US implements Title II, not only does it risk losing credibility and alliances with other nations, it also gives authoritarian governments the justification they need to increase control of the Internet.
Simply put, if the US wanders down the path of net neutrality and Title II, there is no reason why authoritarian regimes won’t follow suit, especially if they can legitimize increased monitoring of networks and users under the guise of keeping the Internet “open and free.” Make no mistake: national policies have international implications. Title II is a bad idea for US interests at home and abroad.