Among Internet policy issues likely to surface in member state proposal for the International Telecommunication Union’s quadrennial Plenipotentiary Conference in Dubai this fall are over-the-top (OTT) services, privacy, and cybersecurity, according to Fiona Alexander, associate administrator of the Office of International Affairs at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
Speaking during a mid-day Capitol Hill panel discussion organized by the R Street Institute, Ms. Alexander said that debates over government Internet policies “come to a head when there are major conferences” in the offing. This far ahead of the plenipot, there isn’t much by way of concrete proposals to show what countries are thinking about, but there is a “generic proposal” from Nigeria coming up through the Africa Region that is “talking about a cost-sharing model for OTT,” but there is “not more to it than a couple of lines,” she said. Proposals will continue to develop heading toward the fall, she noted.
Beyond policy proposals from the member states, the plenipot will address internal process and structure issues such as ITU reform, governance, budget, management, and oversight, Ms. Alexander said. And it will hold elections for five positions — secretary general, deputy secretary general, director of the Radiocommunication Bureau, director of the Telecommunication Standardization Bureau, and director of the Telecommunication Development Bureau — as well elections for members of the Radio Regulations Board and the 48 member states that form the governing council.
The U.S. is seeking one of the nine seats on the council allotted to the Americas Region, as well as offering its first candidate “in decades” for one of the individual positions. If elected as director of the Telecommunication Development Bureau, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, a former NTIA telecommunications policy specialist, would be the first woman ever elected to one of the five ITU leadership positions, Ms. Alexander noted.
The title of today’s panel discussion was, “Does the U.N. want to take over the Internet?” Panelist Lawrence Strickling, executive director of the Collaborative Governance Project at the Internet Society (ISOC) and former NTIA administrator, suggested “step[ping] back from the provocative way you posed the question” and realizing that it is “not so much what the ITU [which is a U.N. agency] is claiming as an institution. I’m sure they’d like working on the Internet; who wouldn’t? But it’s more a matter of the views of the member states.”
There is “a relatively small group of authoritarian countries” such as “China and Russia and a handful of others” that want the ITU to have a greater role in Internet governance, while the U.S., Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada favor leaving Internet governance in the hands of stakeholders, Mr. Strickling said. The 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), at which some ITU members proposed a role for the ITU in Internet governance, “demonstrated for the first time that the developing world was trending toward a view of more authoritarian countries,” he said. “The WCIT was the start of a four-year effort to bring those countries back, and I think on the whole it was successful,” he added.
Ms. Alexander agreed that “the ITU is a reflection of the member states,” adding, “I don’t think this [debate] is going away anytime soon.”
The third panelist, Milton Mueller, professor at Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Public Policy and director of its Internet Governance Project, said, “I think it’s an unfortunate misdirection to focus on the ITU itself. You have to focus on the state actors around the world.”
He added, “What I see happening around the world that is a threat to the Internet is that nation states are trying to take over the Internet, and not just the ‘bad guys.’” For example, “we have the Federal Communications Commission here proposing to prevent rural telecommunications carriers from purchasing equipment from Chinese equipment makers precisely because they’re Chinese,” he said, referring to Chairman Ajit Pai’s proposal for Commissioners to vote at their April 17 meeting on a notice of proposed rulemaking to prohibit the use of universal service funds to purchase equipment and services from companies deemed to be a national security risk.
“My concern is that states will project their rivalry into the Internet governance realm and tear the Internet apart,” Mr. Mueller said.
Moderator Joe Kane of the R Street Institute asked about the possible international reaction if the U.S. tried to reverse its 2016 decision to relinquish its oversight of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers’ performance of its Internet Assigned Names Authority (IANA) functions to the Internet stakeholder community.
Mr. Mueller said that “any signals that we were trying to reverse the transition ... would be a catalyst for precisely the sort of intergovernmentalism” that was evidenced in the WCIT proposal for an ITU role in Internet governance. Any attempt to reverse the IANA transition “would be seen as an indication that the U.S. acted in bad faith, even though that’s not true,” he added.
He said that such an effort “would be full-fledged disaster” for multistakeholderism, Internet governance, and the reputation of the U.S. on Internet policy issues.
Mr. Strickling, who headed NTIA during the IANA transition, said that “there is no possibility of reversing” it.
“There’s really nothing to take back,” he said, as the IANA oversight was simply the U.S. review of changes such as updates to root servers. “If there were [U.S.] legislation passed to require the IANA contract to be put out again [for bidding], everyone would ignore it,” he added. Any U.S. effort to reverse the transition would be ineffective but would be a “huge” public relations mistake, he said.
“In the last two years, the Internet has run as well as it ran before,” Mr. Strickling said.
Mr. Kane also asked the effect of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), set to take effect in May, on the WHOIS service, which effectively enables anyone to obtain information about the party behind a particular domain.
Current NTIA Administrator David J. Redl has said that preservation of the WHOIS service in the face of the GDPR is the top U.S. priority for ICANN (TR Daily, March 12).
At today’s discussion, Mr. Mueller said that the EU has threatened ICANN and registrars “with big fines” under the GDPR if information about EU parties isn’t kept private.
He said that ICANN is planning to “set up a tiered access system” under which accredited entities could get access to the WHOIS system. “The ICANN board tried to punt the accreditation issue” to the Governmental Advisory Committee, effectively asking countries to tell it “what a law enforcement officer is,” which is one of the types of parties that could be accredited, he added.
However, Mr. Mueller said, “the GDPR takes effect in May. ICANN is not going to come up with a global accreditation system in a month and a half.”
Ms. Alexander said that EU data protection authorities are going to meet April 10 and 11 about the GDPR, “and ICANN is hoping April 12 and 13 to get some kind of guidance” for the WHOIS issue.
“It is important to maintain access for law enforcement, cybersecurity researchers, and IP [intellectual property] protection,” she said. However, “it’s very difficult to talk about accreditation until you know what you’re accrediting for,” she added.
Mr. Mueller said, “Most of the civil society community fears that we’ll have tiering that’s an open gate that anyone can walk through except the general public,” and in which WHOIS information could be used for marketing but could not be seen by the general public, and “that’s not a step forward.” —Lynn Stanton, [email protected]
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