Concerns about privacy protection and security issues should not be pretexts for greater regulation of the internet, says David Gross, the chairman of the working group for the World Conference on International Telecommunications 2012 (WCIT-12).
“The problems should be dealt with by other mechanisms and in other forums. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) should not be involved in internet regulation but with traditional telephony,” said Mr Gross, speaking on the sidelines of a WCIT-12 preparatory meeting in Bangkok.
The ITR treaty, which was agreed on in 1988 and came into force in 1990, is one of the four treaties forming the foundation of the ITU.
The WCIT meeting in Dubai on Dec 3 and 4 will be the first review of the ITR. Among the changes being proposed for discussion are amendments dealing with human rights of access to communications; security in the use of ICT; protection of critical national resources; international frameworks; charging and accounting including taxation, interconnection and interoperability; quality of service, and convergence.
The current system of internet governance uses a “multi-stakeholder model” in which decisions about technical and operational aspects are made through international non-profit and non-governmental organizations. These include participation by academics, engineers, representatives of the private sector and governments.
The strength of this model, Mr Gross explained, is that decisions on governance are forced to be made collaboratively with input from a wide range of members, rather than being under the direct, exclusive control of governments or a single organisation.
The internet has expanded the borders of knowledge for all people across the globe and no one should be given additional tools to regulate it, in his view.
Countries that have suggested greater control include Russia (more stringent internet regulations), China (concerns on security issues), and Saudi Arabia (which favours an ITU role in internet regulation). Other countries such as Singapore take a more liberal view that the ITU should not deal with internet control, according to Mr Gross, a former coordinator for international communications and information policy in the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs at the US Department of State.
Many countries, including Thailand, he said, apparently are being cautious about the amendment proposals because they would expand the jurisdiction to the ITU beyond its traditional mandate.
He believes any revisions should reflect what has been proved to work for billions of internet users for two decades and support competition and innovation in the private sector.
“This model has led to the massive growth and expansion of the internet, especially in Asia which has become the region with the largest number of internet users in the world,” he said.
The Internet Society Board of Trustees also raised concerns at its Vancouver meeting early this month that some proposed changes to the ITR treaty could have a negative impact on the internet.
The chair of the Internet Society board, Eva Frölich, said the revisions should focus on things that have clearly worked in the field of global communications: competition, privatisation, and transparent and independent regulation.
The success of the internet had been driven by open, consensus-based standards and processes embodied in organisations such as the Internet Engineering Task Force and other critical parts of the internet “ecosystem” that rely on openness and transparency, Ms Frolich said.
Her board has identified some “troubling” aspects of the amendment proposals, including
making ITU-T standards mandatory;
creating a new model for internet interconnection via the ITR;
adversely affecting internet naming, numbering, and addressing;
regulating network aspects that have never been part of telecoms, including IP routing; and,
extending the scope and application of the ITR to the internet and internet providers.
These types of provisions, if adopted, could jeopardise global connectivity and the future growth of the internet, particularly in developing countries, she said. They would affect the architecture, security and global interoperability of the internet, and impose detrimental burdens on the free and open internet on which billions of people depend.
Kanchana Kanchanasut, director of the Internet Education and Research Laboratory at the Asian Institute of Technology, said she agreed that less control was better and that cooperation, not regulation, would help solve the problems.
Adoption of the proposed ITR changes would have wider implication for people in Asia, where the impact of these decisions will be substantial.
According to Mr Gross, some of the proposals at WCIT could even change the economics associated with the internet and result in higher prices, with some internet content companies no longer being willing to serve poor people.
Some other proposals may result in greater censorship of internet content and make it harder for new Asian companies and entrepreneurs to reach global markets, he said.
The free flow of information and access offered by the internet has brought tremendous benefits to the world, said Mr Gross. A rural child can now learn much more and acquire knowledge and skills online, despite being physically remote from academic centres. If there are more restrictions over the internet, this remarkable opportunity may be lost.
“The Internet had been growing significantly under multiple-stakeholder regime, becoming a great contributor to national development in all aspects,” he said. “I would love to see this trend continue.”