Editorial: The Next Net Threat

Moving from a multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance, to an International Telecommunications Union-centric model involving dozens of governments is the wrong way to go

For some, December in Dubai may conjure up
images of that indoor ski run built in the middle
of the Persian Gulf desert several years ago. For FCC commissioner Robert McDowell, an Internet conference in Dubai at
the end of this year offers the specter of a slippery slope leading toward government
control of the Internet.

Unlike the network neutrality debate, where McDowell found himself on the
other side of FCC chairman Julius Genachowski and the White House, there is
general agreement that moving from a multi-stakeholder approach to Internet
governance—engineers with pocket protectors but no political territory to expand
or defend—to an International Telecommunications Union-centric model
involving dozens of governments is the wrong way to go.

It’s not for nothing that McDowell calls this the next Internet openness flash
point—he has always argued that net threats from government, not ISPs, was the
real danger. He also calls it the public policy issue that could potentially have the
most impact on the most people, which would mean topping spectrum auctions and
media ownership decisions, and even more broadband deployment efforts. He says
the threat is to “Internet commerce, the spread of freedom and democracy and the
spread of ideas” in general. If that’s the case, his assessment is surely right.

The problem, as McDowell and others see it, is that countries like China, Russia
and India—as in countries whose Internet policies should be on nobody’s list of
models to emulate—are pushing for more government-centric control over global
Internet governance policy. The vehicle for this potential policy shift is—and don’t
fall asleep on us here—renegotiating a 1988 treaty on the exchange of phone traffic
among countries. That’s kind of like the global version of the intercarrier compensation
payments U.S. telecom companies pay to share each other’s networks.

Smaller countries that have seen their payments for such traffic diminish with the
rise of the Net, or who would like to start getting payments from Google or Yahoo!
for a piece of their traffic, could join China and Russia in changing the terms of the
treaty to, say, support per-click payments, or otherwise try to apply it to the Internet.

The threat has been described as a U.N.-style takeover of the Internet, but that has
too many evocations for us of Republican knocks on the U.N. And this is not meant
as a knock on the ITU. Genachowski made a good point last week in arguing for a
multi-stakeholder model vs. ITU-centric control; namely, that the Arab Spring would
probably not have been possible without a World Trade Organization deal under the
Clinton administration that allowed for investment and agreement on competition
principles. Everybody, said Genachowski, asked how the Egyptian government was
able to throw a kill switch on the Net. The unasked question: How did Egypt get to
a point that it had a mobile Internet and infrastructure worth shutting down?

That said, with the prospect of Russia and China getting more control over
the Internet, or of a bifurcated scenario with some countries signing on to more
government Internet-governance and others, like the U.S., declining to join the
group, the issue needs to start getting some attention in circles beyond government
working groups and policy conferences. It certainly has our attention.