Sunday, December 02, 2012

WCIT 2012: Observations and Lessons

With the opening of WCIT 2012 today, presumably the U.S. delegation (and interested U.S. parties) are safely ensconced in Dubai and ready for action. Readers of this space know that WCIT is the acronym for the World Conference on International Communications convened by the International Telecommunications Union, an organization with 193 member countries established under the auspices of the United Nations. 
In the past couple of weeks, much has been written about the possible perils to the Internet posed by proposals put forward by some countries. These perils include proposed changes to the Internet's prevailing mode of governance, along with forced changes to its existing technical operations and economic arrangements. And they include proposed changes that would diminish the Internet's utility as a platform for the free exchange of information. Because the potential threats are real, and because some proposals, if adopted, would fundamentally alter the character and working of the Internet, it is understandable that alarm bells have been ringing. 
Indeed, the Free State Foundation held a seminar at the National Press Club back on May 30 to address the potential adverse impacts from the WCIT 2012 conference. We were pleased to have FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell and Richard Beaird, Senior Deputy United States Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy at the Department of State, as speakers, along with other notables. We also were pleased that C-SPAN appreciated that the seminar was important enough to be broadcast live. You can find the C-SPAN video here. And a complete transcript of the proceedings is here
I don't want to repeat at any length the various points made by many of my think tank colleagues and others over the past few weeks, but rather offer a few observations to highlight certain points, especially points that translate into lessons that ought to be instructive going forward. 
First, having in mind the various proposals that have raised concerns – ranging from proposals to amend the ITU international telecommunications regulations to give sanction to outright government censorship of free expression on the Net to others that would sanction new forms of economic and/or technical Internet regulation, it is important not to lose sight of this central point: What is at stake is the continued existence of the current bottoms-up, privatized, multi-stakeholder Internet governance model as opposed to one featuring top-down government controls. In this regard, recall that the proposals to be offered at the WCIT are to amend the "international telecommunications regulations" adopted in1988 when generally monopolistic telecommunications services were offered, at least in most countries around the world, under stringent regulatory controls. 
Second, FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, who more than anyone else early on sounded alarms concerning the potential for WCIT mischief, points out, correctly, that proposals in international forums to abandon the current multi-stakeholder Internet governance model are likely to be ongoing. So, when the U.S. delegation heads home after Dubai, hopefully with a successful result, there will be no reason to celebrate any "final victories." Continued vigilance will be required.  
Third, the broad bipartisan support for the U.S. position opposing proposals inconsistent with the current privatized, multi-stakeholder model has been commendable – not only commendable, but important in strengthening the United States' bargaining position. All FCC commissioners, regardless of party, oppose changes to the ITU regulations that would sanction increased government control of the Internet. Both the House of Representatives and a Senate panel unanimously adopted resolutions expressing support for maintaining the current governance model and urging a hands-off ITU regulatory policy. 
In today's dynamic, competitive communications marketplace, this broad bipartisan support opposing WCIT-sanctioned control of Internet providers ought to translate into a shared commitment by our U.S. policymakers that, absent market failure and demonstrable consumer harm, Internet providers should not be subject to government-imposed common carrier-like regulations. This means they should not be subject to FCC net neutrality mandates that resemble legacy regulations applied to last century's common carriers a la the ITU's international telecommunications regulations. It was the Clinton Administration that forcefully articulated this deregulatory position in a White Paper as the Internet developed in the 1990s, and it deserves much credit for doing so. If the U.S. is going to lead the fight for a deregulatory Internet governance model around the world, it should make sure it leads by example here at home. 
I have no doubt that the U.S. delegation in Dubai will work hard to preserve the privatized, multi-stakeholder Internet governance model by opposing changes to the ITU telecommunications regulations that would give international sanction to top-down government control of the Internet or that would give official sanction to government censorship of free expression. 
We should commit to working equally hard here at home to do the same.