Editorial: The NextNet 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.