A meeting of the United Nations' ITU (International Telecommunication Union) in December could lead to broad new regulations of the Internet, including per-click taxes, if U.S. and other delegations don't work hard to oppose proposals, U.S. officials and Internet governance experts told lawmakers Thursday.
A December ITU treaty-writing meeting in Dubai, the World Conference On International Telecommunications, could include efforts from Russia, China and other countries to impose new regulations on the Internet, witnesses told the communications subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee.
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"The open Internet has never been at higher risk than it is now," said Vinton Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist at Google. "A new international battle is brewing -- a battle that will determine the future of the Internet."
Cerf, co-developer of the TCP/IP standard, urged U.S. policymakers to resist attempts at the ITU meeting to regulate the Internet through the U.N. and to give dictatorial countries more "top-down" control over Internet content. "If all of us -- from Capitol Hill to corporate headquarters to Internet cafés in far-off villages -- don't pay attention to what's going on, users worldwide will be at risk of losing the open and free Internet that has brought so much to so many," he said.
Officials from Russia and other countries have pushed in the past for the ITU to take Internet governance away from the ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) and other organizations, but there are no current proposals to overhaul Internet governance during the December meeting, said Philip Verveer, deputy assistant secretary of state and coordinator for international communications and information policy at the U.S. Department of State.
More of the focus for the December meeting seems to be on countries generating new revenue from Internet services, including per-click or traffic transmission taxes and roaming fees, Verveer said. Challenges to the current multistakeholder model of Internet governance could still come up, but are unlikely to pass, he said.
Other hearing participants were less optimistic. The ITU meeting, "if we're not vigilant, just might break the Internet," said Representative Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican and subcommittee chairman.
Verveer noted that the U.S. government would not be bound by decisions at the ITU meeting, but delegates there could set the expectations for international regulation of the Internet.
Subcommittee members said they are united in opposition to any proposals to give the U.N. or individual countries more control over the Internet or to tax Internet traffic. On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of subcommittee members, led by Representative Mary Bono Mack, a California Republican, introduced a House resolution (PDF) saying it is the "consistent and unequivocal policy of the United States to promote a global Internet free from government control."
Some proposals for the December conference would "fundamentally alter the governance and operation of the Internet," the resolution said.
Russia, China and other countries will likely continue to push for expanded U.N. control of the Internet that could lead to censorship and a balkanization of the Web, Robert McDowell, a Republican member of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, told the subcommittee.
"The threats are real and not imagined, although they admittedly sound like works of fiction sometimes," McDowell said.
With few details about ITU proposals available, witnesses called for more transparency in the process. A lack of transparency to non-governmental groups results in "insufficient accountability," Cerf said. "It is important for parties to fully understand a process that affects all Internet users," he said.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.