Don’t Be Shocked by the ITU – Our House Isn’t in Such Good Order Itself

by Mike Wendy on December 8, 2012

I saw this on Friday’s Wall Street Journal editorial page, “Obama, the U.N. and the Internet,” which comments on the U.N. / ITU Internet policy debate now occurring in Dubai.  In the piece, the Journal notes:

…The ITU, founded in 1865 to establish international principles for the telegraph, claims the power to regulate the Internet because computers send packets of information over telecommunications lines. That slim pretext has given an opening to authoritarians and international bureaucrats to try to replace the open architecture of the Internet with something they can more easily monitor and control. (Emphasis added)

(Sound familiar, the slim pretext?)

Should we be surprised about this conflation of telephone and Internet policy, especially when we hear ex-administration officials, like Susan Crawford, essentially saying it’s okay to telephone-regulate the Internet’s network providers (video here, transcribed below) because they’re “utilities” and don’t count as the Internet:

As the Internet is currently understood, anybody can launch a new application.  Network industries at the dirt, pipes, wires, airwaves level I think are no different from any other natural monopoly, fundamental industries and utilities we’ve had in the past. Like electricity.  Like the phone system.  So there, the government role is unchanged.  The sort of idea and economics of natural monopolies did not suddenly become transformed with the pixie dust of digital technology.  The basic economics remain the same. (Emphasis added)

Is it any wonder that other countries might seek to impose through the imprimatur of the U.N. a myopic, 19th Century telephone-oriented understanding of the Internet, when our own “enlightened” Internet activists, such as those at Free Press, sought to shape the FCC’s current Open Internet / Net Neutrality rules with this telephone regulation labyrinth:

Broadly speaking, Title II of the Communications Act lays out several key obligations that Congress has deemed critical for two-way communications networks: nondiscrimination, affordable access, interconnection, competition, and consumer protection. In moving to a Title II framework, the Commission must not forbear from applying the sections of the Act that promote these basic objectives. Thus, at a minimum, the Commission must apply section 201, 202, 208, 222, 251(a), 255, and 256 of the Act to all broadband service providers. To facilitate interconnection and competition, it should also retain section 214’s oversight over service discontinuances and preserve its ability to apply the unbundling provisions of section 251(b) and (c).

Oh, and add this from Public Knowledge, too:

…[Title II telecommunications regulation would] greatly enhance the free and open character of the Internet, and would expand the range of opportunities for more aggressive regulatory steps geared to promote widespread deployment and adoption of advanced telecommunications services… (Emphasis added)

Can one really be shocked by the ITU’s activities when its members hear the FCC’s Chairman once state without a hint of irony in the run up to Net Neutrality regulations that, “One of the Internet’s greatest strengths – its unprecedented power to foster technological, economic, and social innovation – stems in significant part from the absence of any central controlling authority, either public or private.” And then, as all the “progressive” consternation noted above bore its bitter fruit, the agency actually became itself a central controlling authority over the Internet and imposed telephone-like regulations on Internet network providers – e.g., the agency’s “well-meaning” Open Internet / Net Neutrality regulations – relegating those providers to second-class servants in the Internet economy?

The answer to all of the above is: No.  We should not be surprised at what’s happening at the U.N. / ITU, especially when our own house isn’t in order.

Of course, this does not justify what’s being attempted in Dubai, the truly repressive efforts, in particular. Still, we hear the U.S. yet utter its doublespeak to the World (by many of the parties above) that it’s just “one Internet” – that is, unless it concerns a piece of the Internet ecosystem which one doesn’t like (such as Internet network providers), or seeks subsidy from (such as, umm, Internet network providers).  Then, 19th Century telephone regulations are OK for them, because they’re not really part of the Internet anyway.


192 other countries hear this and think, “Hey, if it’s alright for the Internet’s leader – the U.S. – to speak out of both sides of its mouth, why can’t we do the same?”

Public Knowledge’s Gigi Sohn has said that Net Neutrality rules “are a good start” to “protect the Internet” from evils A-to-Z…and beyond.  192 other nations recognize this, too, and each with its own eye to “protect” whatever, has set about doing just that through the U.N. / ITU process.

Perhaps the World has had enough of Uncle Sam’s doublespeak.  We’ll find out soon enough.

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