The Internet faces the dark side of the Force

9 January 2013 by Steve Blum
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International telecommunications diplomacy isn't a pretty business.

“It was a little bit like the Star Wars bar scene,” said FCC commissioner Robert McDowell, as he described his experience as a U.S. representative at last month's World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai.

He was part of a delegation that included private sector companies, like Google, as well as a boat load of diplomats and policy wonks. They were up against a solid wall of countries that wanted the International Telecommunications Union – a United Nations organization – to get into the business of regulating the Internet.

Despite promises that the conference wouldn't try to impose international oversight of Internet content or network infrastructure, WCIT turned into a fight over Internet governance. It pitted a handful of countries, including the U.S., that want to keep current freedoms intact, and most of the rest of the world's governments, which, for one reason or another, don't.

He was speaking on a all-star panel of WCIT participants at CES this afternoon. The group included Representative Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virgina, congressional staffers John Branscome and David Redl, Eric Loeb from AT&T and Google's Pablo Chavez. Earlier in the day, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski weighed in.

“I think we're seeing two dangerous trends coming together. We're seeing a censorship trend as countries around the world that don't believe in freedom recognize that open communications networks are a challenge to them,” Genachowski said. “We're seeing Internet providers outside of the U.S., including in Europe, that want to solve their business model problems by changing the Internet.”

That unholy alliance almost led to a near unanimous agreement to impose internationally sanctioned government control over Internet content and networks. A last minute overreach by the Iranian government pushed several dozen countries back in the unregulated camp.

They'll try again at the next major ITU treaty meeting, scheduled for October 2014 in South Korea. McDowell calls it a “constitutional convention of the ITU” that could result in a complete re-write of the international telecommunications regulatory structure, for good or ill. The panelists agreed that the battle will continue.

“We have to be in the room, even if we're outvoted,” concluded congressman Goodlatte. “Some people will learn the hard way, but eventually they will learn.”