Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Internet Freedom, At Home and Abroad

As regular readers of this space know, since its founding in 2006, the Free State Foundation has played a leading role advocating for an Internet environment here in the United States free from government control and regulation. Thus, we have opposed imposition of "net neutrality" mandates by the FCC and other forms of government regulation that have the effect of restricting the freedom of Internet service providers to respond to the needs of consumers and the demands of a constantly evolving Internet ecosystem.
While most of our focus has been on U.S. domestic policies, the Internet, of course, is an interconnected "network of networks" that spans the globe. The Mona Lisa in the Louvre is just a click away. And you can easily have a video conversation via Skype with your third cousin halfway around the world, or with political dissidents fighting for freedom, and perhaps their lives, in a faraway repressive regime. No one today needs any more examples of the international nature of the Internet. You can quickly come up with hundreds on your own.
But there are challenges looming from abroad that could impact the functioning of the Internet as we know it today, including the communication of the free flow of ideas that generally prevails across the Net. Most immediately, proposals may be put forward by several countries at the World Conference on International Communications (WCIT) 2012, to be held this December in Dubai. These proposals, if adopted, would fundamentally alter the existing privatized, multi-stakeholder governance model that characterizes the Internet and under which the Net has flourished.
The WCIT conference will be convened by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which itself is an organization operated under the auspices of the United Nations. This December's WCIT conference will be considering changes to international telecommunications regulations that were adopted by the ITU in 1988 - well before the development of the Internet as we know it today.
The 1988 ITU regulations represented a liberalization in some respects of prior international regulations. But they nevertheless generally treated telecommunications services, consistent with the then-prevailing generally monopolistic telecom environment, as subject to government regulation or outright government control. Fortunately, as the Internet grew in the 1990s, it did so outside of this framework of international inter-government control. Instead, the modern Internet has been "governed" by a "bottoms up" multi-stakeholder approach under which interested parties from various industry sectors, public interest groups, engineering societies, and the like collaborate in various private forums and associations to adopt the technical standards and other policies that keep the Internet functioning well.
The Clinton Administration deserves credit for playing a central role in implementing this multi-stakeholder privatization model that became the existing Internet governance model. Its "Framework for Global Electronic Commerce," issued in 1997, declared: 
"Though government played a role in financing the initial development of the Internet, its expansion has been driven primarily by the private sector. For electronic commerce to flourish, the private sector must continue to lead. Innovation, expanded services, broader participation, and lower prices will arise in a market-driven arena, not in an environment that operates as a regulated industry. Accordingly, governments should encourage industry self-regulation wherever appropriate and support the efforts of private sector organizations to develop mechanisms to facilitate the successful operation of the Internet."
This self-regulatory, multi-stakeholder model has worked - marvelously.
Internet statistics are dizzying, of course, and one could go on and on. Just this much here: There are now 2.2 billion Internet users across the globe, an increase of over 500% over the past decade. At the end of March 2012, there were 900 million Facebook users, over 80% of whom are outside of the U.S. and Canada.
But now there are some countries around the world, especially less developed ones, which are likely to try to use the upcoming WCIT conference to adopt new regulations that would give the ITU and their governments control over elements of the Internet. This control might include regulation of rates, supervision of the assignment of Internet domain names, and even adoption of policies concerning the types of speech that would be deemed "acceptable" on the Net.
FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell has performed a service in sounding early warnings about the threats that may arise at the WCIT conference. Here is his op-ed, "The U.N. Threat to Internet Freedom," published on February 21 in the Wall Street Journal. His piece, which discusses the issues in more detail, should be widely read.
And you'll be able to hear Commissioner McDowell discuss the challenges to Internet freedom posed by the WCIT conference at the Free State Foundation's lunch seminar next Wednesday, May 30, at the National Press Club. As you can see from the sidebar at the right, we have an outstanding lineup of speakers, including the State Department's international communications expert, Richard Beaird.
Sure, the Internet is not a panacea for solving all the world's problems. And I understand that, depending on circumstances, the Net may even make it easier for those who wish to cause trouble or commit crimes to do so. But there is no doubt that, overall, the continued development of the Internet, and the continued increase in the number of people who are "online," connected with people around the corner and around the world, contributes positively to the promotion of human freedom and prosperity.
That's why it is important the Internet not be given over to inter-governmental supervision or control through action at the International Telecommunications Union, or through the actions of any other international body.
If you wish to join us at FSF's May 30 seminar addressing these issues, you must RSVP to Kathee Baker at