During the last meeting of the North American Network Operators’ Group (NANOG) on 24 October, an Internet Governance Update Panel was convened to review the possible implications of treaty-level decisions on the future of the Internet to be discussed at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) in Dubai. The panel was said to “include perspectives from a range of involved organizations” when the participants represented only industry interests. Moderated by Cathy Handley of the American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN), the panel was made up of Vint Cerf, Bill Graham, Sally Wentworth, Chip Sharp and Dan Alexander.

One thing to consider is that all the panelists, with the exception of Alexander, were former officials of either the US or Canadian governments. While Cerf worked with the US Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Wentworth was for nine years the principal policy advisor on Internet governance at the State Department. Sharp, now a Director at Cisco Systems, also worked for State, advising on international treaty negotiations. Graham began a long career in the Canadian government in 1988, leading preparations for WSIS in 2003 and 2005. Even Handley has government ties, linked to her time as the Contracting Officer’s Technical Representative at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration within the US Department of Commerce.

Cerf, currently the Vice President and “Chief Internet Evangelist” for Google, expressed clearly his opposition not only to any proposed changes to the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITR), but also to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) itself. “I think I want to emphasize that there is real mischief and real harm that can come out of modifications of the ITRs in ways that draw Internet concepts into its ambit.” Cerf asserted that the Internet today has three major enemies: the UN, national governments and telecom operators. “Not only the telephone industry should have died a long time ago but the ITU should have died along with it.”

Aside from emphasizing constantly how ITU proposals would endanger the “free” nature of the Internet, Cerf expressed other concerns reflecting his role at the largest web-based business of all. “One mistaken belief is, well, suppose in the United States we reject all that, we say we’re not going to follow those rules, and therefore it won’t affect us. The answer is, it will affect us if others adopt those rules. Particularly, for example, a proposal to return to a charging regime that involves settlements could have quite a dramatic effect on every one of us.” Cerf further characterized a prominent proposal from the European Telecommunications Network Operators (ETNO), which would institute a ‘paying sender’ principle for data traffic, as “the painful dying screams of an industry that no longer makes any sense given the technology we have before us.”

Cerf’s rhetoric was consistently alarmist. “Some of you may remember that in the telephony world when you made a phone call there was this ‘sender pays’ model where you initiated the phone call and everyone in between you and the party you called was able to charge for the use of the telephone service. And in the end you would get a bill. These settlement rates were determined by the receiving parties, and – especially in the developing world – the prices were quite high. The claim was made that these high charges were needed in order to help propagate more infrastructure in the third world country, but the honest observation is that a lot of those places had the telephone services run by the government, and people who were in charge of that siphoned some of that money off… If we enter into a settlement regime in the Internet space it [would] absolutely distort and destroy the basic Internet model, which is that each user pays to get access to the Internet and then you do whatever you want to do.”

It is naïve to think that the Internet is a completely open, free and democratic platform when corporations, slowly monopolizing aspects of the web, are for the most part directly or indirectly controlling the administration. The US government and private sector have shared interests when it comes to the operation of the Internet. Although a non-governmental organization, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which controls the Internet’s underlying address system, has questionable independence from governmental influence. Cerf served as first chairman of the board of ICANN from 2000-2007, while Graham currently sits on the Board.  Similarly, Google, Cisco and Comcast have been part of a group lobbying aggressively against ITU proposals. Three of the panelists at the meeting represented these companies and their interests.

Would it not be be more democratic if 193 states had a say, instead of only one? Including the Internet in the scope of the ITR does not automatically imply a threat to present ‘freedoms.’ Although some governments will propose to regulate Internet access and content, it is unlikely that such ideas would attract sufficient support at WCIT-12 to be reflected in binding treaty amendments. The goal should be to have a platform for debate on Internet governance, allowing for democratic accountability without hindering the growth or development of the Internet.

It is instructive to look behind the smokescreen of human rights rhetoric used by commercial operators and ask why the ITU has really been viewed as a threat. Arguably, heated opposition to the regulation of the Internet stems from economic incentives. “Things are changing and we want to… enable growth and development. And we don’t want to have treaty obligations that are going to restrict that growth and that’s fundamentally the reason we’re engaged here” stated Sharp. He was supported by Alexander, network engineer for Comcast Cable. “To shift from this kind of multi-stakeholder approach to solving problems, to one of treaty-defined regulations adds a large layer of complexity to this situation that would become an issue for pretty much every business in this room. And that’s one of the reasons why we’ve been trying to be involved in a lot of these conversations.”

The panelists urged all attendees to become involved and write about the issues that concerned them most in relation to the ITU and proposals circulating ahead of WCIT-12. “If you do business in countries that do that, if you have interests in countries and markets that aren’t the US or Canada, which I suspect most of you in this room do, this will affect the legal and regulatory environment that you work in,” suggested Wentworth. She continued: “take it seriously, really look at it. There are a lot of materials available… But this isn’t a declaration that sits on a shelf. This is a treaty that gets implemented and creates obligations, that creates rules for all of us in this space.” Graham further advised businesses to lobby their governments and voice their views. “So there is this whole series of events coming along in the ITU context that could ultimately lead to a greater mandate for the ITU to have a role in the Internet as they define it. That I think is what we really need to watch out for.”

Perhaps predictably, the last word went to Cerf. “So don’t forget that there are multiple incentives hiding behind this facade of debate and some of them are not in the interest of the Internet at all.” When criticizing the governmental incentives in the lead-up to WCIT-12, however, the multiple incentives of the private sector carefully masked by the rhetoric of freedom should also not be forgotten.  

Related articles:

The Hypocrisy Threatening the Future of the Internet;

The Great Internet Governance Swindle;