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Interview: US Ambassador David Gross explains UN ‘takeover’ of the Internet

US Ambassador David Gross talks about UN 'takeover' of the Internet

Right now, countries around the world are preparing their proposals for the upcoming World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), which will take place in Dubai this December. During WCIT 2012, the 193 member states of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a United Nations agency, will decide whether to impose new regulations on the networks and economics of the Internet.

Specifically, ITU member states will vote on proposed changes to the International Telecommunications Regulations(ITRs), an international treaty last amended in 1988 (long before the commercial Internet existed), that would give the ITU unprecedented regulatory power over the global Internet. As it currently stands, the ITU has no involvement with the Internet whatsoever. Each country gets one vote, and all votes are equal.

Adding to the contentious nature of the process, most of these proposals remain secret, which led to the creation of WCITLeaks.org, where dozens of ITU proposal documents have leaked to the world.

While characterizations of a U.N. “takeover” of the Internet are not precisely accurate — the ITU claims they are outright wrong — the potential consequences remain the same: After WCIT, the governments of the world will have more power over the Internet than ever before — if certain proposed changes to the ITRs are adopted.

In the United States, the federal government and the Internet-related business community stand firmly together in opposition to handing the ITU and its member states any power to regulate the Internet.

To get an insider’s take on the process leading up WCIT and what is at stake for Internet users around the world, Digital Trends spoke with former U.S. Ambassador David Gross, a renowned expert on international telecommunications. As a former U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy for the Department of State, Amb. Gross has led various U.S. delegations before the ITU. Amb. Gross is now a partner with Weily Rein LLP, and currently represents a range of Internet-related companies, including telecom giants like AT&T and Verizon, as chairman of the Information, Communications, and Technology Policy Committee of the U.S. Council for International Business.

Amb. Gross is in Bangkok, Thailand, this week for a preparatory meeting of the Asia-Pacific Telecommunity (APT), whose task it is to decide upon the region’s various ITU proposals that will be officially presented at WCIT 2012. We spoke with Amb. Gross on Wednesday after the day’s APT meeting.

Ambassador David A. Gross

DT: How is the meeting going so far?

Amb. Gross: Well the meeting is going on… Interestingly, this was supposed to be the last preparatory meeting for the APT, but because it could not get through for a variety of reasons, we’re going to have to meet again for three or four days at the end of September, or beginning of October. So, that’s a significant shift. They thought they were going to get everything done, and they should have gotten everything done in this meeting. But they were unable to do that.

What’s causing the delay?

I would say that the primary reason for the delay is less substance and more the fact that the Iranian delegate, who we all know very, very well — he’s the primary Iranian spokesperson at the ITU — has made earlier today well over 200 interventions. He just constantly intervenes, and constantly makes very lengthy interventions as well. And so that has just sucked up virtually all of the time. Very few of the other delegations here actually make any interventions. The other countries that make some interventions are Australia, Korea, Japan, and occasionally China — but only occasionally. And virtually none of the others. And so it’s all because of one nonsense intervention after another by the Iranians.

So it’s a stonewalling tactic?

It sounds like that. But in fact, it’s even stranger, in my view. It’s less that he’s trying to do this for some tactical effect, which is what you would expect if you were really trying to stonewall. But rather he just has a personality that requires him to intervene, to correct, and to perfect on non-substantive grounds everything. And he does it in a style that requires it to be a lengthy intervention. So you put those things together, and it doesn’t appear to be for tactical or strategic reasons. It’s actually psychological reasons.

Let’s take a step back. What is your role in the APT meeting, and what is the meeting’s basic purpose?

My role here is as an observer. I am here as an observer on behalf of an ad hoc coalition of companies that I chair — currently 15 companies, substantial companies, that are interested in what happens with regard to the Internet, particularly international regulation and the like. There is a U.S. delegation, which is actually representing CITEL, which is the Americas’ telecom group. So there are representatives here from the FCC, Department of State, Department of Commerce. There are other country observers as well — Canada, for example, and elsewhere.

But the purpose of this meeting was for the Asia-Pacific Telecommunity, which represents all the Asian countries getting prepared for WCIT, which will be held in Dubai in December. [The meeting is] to help prep common positions for the region. All of the regions of the world have these. What was going to be very important about this one is, it was going to be the first region to come to these agreements in the final stages of the process. So, in theory, it could have and should have been a template for all the other regions going forward for these negotiations. But they missed the opportunity here by failing to finalize their proposals. They won’t be final until the end of October, beginning of November. The importance of the meeting, frankly, has gone down significantly.

Will some other region take the lead?

Over the next month or so, there will be meetings like this for the Americas, in El Salvador. There will be meetings for Europe, set in Copenhagen. There will be meetings in the Arab world, in Dubai. There will be meetings for the African communications union in that same period. So there will be meetings for each of the major regions that will look at the same sorts of issues.

I do not believe that any other regions, however, are likely to be able to set the global pace, set the template, the way that Asia could have done if they finished their homework today, just as a practical matter. Now, each region looks at these things independently. And come early October, there will be a meeting in Geneva where all of the regional groups will provide over a day and a half a report on where they are in terms of their process, and report out all of these things. But I think in fact we’ll have a lot of chaos between now and Dubai as a result of this.

What changes can we expect to see?

Maybe it would be helpful to outline what I think are the currently the most contentious areas without predicting how they will come out because that’s too hard to do at this state.

For example, let me start with a sort of overarching issue, which is: Should the ITRs be revised in such a way as to effect directly or indirectly the Internet? The last time they were done, in 1988, they really focused at a very high level only on international telephony. So there’s an overarching question of whether or not they should be revised to make them up-to-date, and in so doing, whether or not it should capture Internet-related issues.

Now, the U.S. position that was articulated last week — and of course, I will quickly add, the position of the coalition that I have the honor of chairing — have very strong and very direct views on that. The answer is: No, that the revision should be limited only to international telephony-related issues. That it should basically just update and revise the 1988 treaty, and should not expand the jurisdiction of the ITU any further. That’s clearly one of the hot button issues of the conference.

Second — and related, to a certain degree — and we saw this here in Bangkok over the past couple of days is the issue of security: A number of countries, Russia and China and others, are pressing very, very hard for there to be provisions in the ITRs that go to security. The text coming out of Bangkok for AT&T refers only to network security for telecommunications. And the Chinese are very interested in trying to keep the focus on that type of security here, to try to say that they’re not tying to use this as a way to regulate the Internet. However, of course, others disagree, and look at the language, and look at the concept, and think that it in fact it looks like it is potentially regulating the Internet, or at least security-related Internet issues. And that obviously is highly problematic for many countries.

The next set of issues is whether or not there should be changes made that would affect the ability of carriers and content providers and others to freely negotiate without governmental or intergovermental interferrences — the terms associated with interconnection, and in this case, Internet [peering] and the like. So, currently, there’s no international rules with regard to those issues, at least in terms of peering and the like. And the European carriers — ETNO is the trade association there — has put in a proposal that they’re shopping very heavily that would require ITU and governmental intervention into those agreements, and require that the negotiations follow a certain format and include the possibility of having “sender party pays,” which would be a radical change to the economics of the Internet.

Next page: Amb. Gross explains how the Internet could change fundamentally for all users, censorship, and more.

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