Watching the Watchers: A Role for the ITU in the Internet Age – by Jonathon W. Penney

The Internet appears headed on a collision course with international regulatory institutions like the International Telecommunications Union, but might an impact be avoided? Put another way, what role might such international institutions play that promotes a free and open Internet?

The ITU – a United Nations agency with 193 member states that has historically helped regulate global telecommunications – is currently organizing a series of summits on the Internet, including a seemingly failed attempt in December to update its telecommunications treaty to cover Internet regulation. That summit, the World Conference on International Telecommunications (also known as WCIT-12), produced a 30 page document that 89 countries signed on to, but with the United States, and many allies like the European Union, and Canada, saying no.

But the effort does not end there – in fact, the agency has also organized a forthcoming series of multi-state “Study Groups” to redefine its regulatory role on things like cloud computing, mobile, and next generation networks.

Internet activists and evangelists like Vinton Cerf have rightly raised alarms over a potential Internet governance “takeover” by states like China, Russia and Iran, who are pushing for greater Internet censorship and control, with the ITU a mere conduit for those authoritarian designs. The ITU’s defenders, including its secretary general Hamadoun Touré, disclaim any Internet regulatory agenda.

Internet freedom activists are right to raise concerns, but the case has so far been made entirely in negative terms. That is, that the ITU should “keep its hands off” the Internet and stick to organizing conferences or more traditional functions like radio spectrum allocation. Or that the United States should simply “de-fund” the ITU.

In terms of the U.S. defunding the ITU, that idea will likely fall flat as the U.S. only contributes 8% of the ITU’s budget. And offering no role or vision for the ITU is deeply short-sighted, because if we are to believe FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell’s recent testimony to Congress, the agency is fairly resolute in defining a new role for itself in relation to the Internet. History would certainly suggest that this is so; the ITU— originally named the International Telegraph Union— has demonstrated a unique capacity to evolve since its founding in the 1860s, to stay relevant to shifting telecommunications technologies, from the telegraph, to voice telephony, to radio, to communications satellites, and now the Internet. Over time, it has expanded its reach but also, when necessary, re-invented or reprised its vision and approach.

So if the ITU is not going away, then those of us who care about Internet freedom and privacy must offer a new vision or role for the agency. Otherwise, we risk leaving a void that is already being filled by those seeking to impose online censorship and control. It makes little sense to hand the keys over to countries like China, Russia, Iran, Nigeria, or Saudi Arabia, so they can drive the agenda and role, of international institutions like the ITU in coming years.

In his recent Congressional testimony, FCC Commissioner McDowell put the challenge succinctly:

The ITU can serve as a useful and constructive forum for the resolution of many important international communications policy matters, such as harmonization of spectrum and the allocation of satellite orbital slots. In contexts such as these, reaching international consensus through the ITU can produce positive outcomes. The danger, however, lies with unwarranted ITU “mission creep” into new spheres, such as the complex ecosystems of the Internet.

So, what might a “useful and constructive” role for the ITU in the Internet age look like?

Perhaps history has an answer.

In 1984, global radio communications were being jammed at historic levels. The Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies led the way, as they had since 1948, jamming international radio broadcasts like Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, the BBC, and Germany’s Deutsche Welle. However, radio jamming by this time had also spread to other regions, including the Middle East and Asia.

Similar to the divisive disagreements about Internet censorship and governance today, Cold War information conflicts over international radio communications rendered the regulatory authority of consensus-based agencies like the ITU largely ineffectual.

Facing irrelevance, as well as strong lobbying by Western officials, the ITU was persuaded to establish and coordinate a monitoring program that same year, to map and monitor radio jamming around the world.

Though it received little fanfare or attention, the ITU’s monitoring program was a success. Working with organizations and cooperative governments around the world, it established a comprehensive and technically sophisticated monitoring program, using high frequency radio monitoring and direction finding equipment strategically located globally. Results mapping radio jammers were issued regularly, and annual reports tabled at various international forums, from 1984 through to 1988, with over 100 sources of radio jamming mapped and thus “outed”.

Despite historic levels in 1984, radio jamming was already diminished by 1986, with even greater reductions by late 1987. Though the Soviet Union remained largely undeterred, jamming in Eastern bloc states, as well smaller countries in other regions, were scaled back, and in some cases stopped entirely. Though there were certainly other complex factors at play, the ITU monitoring program, and its international platform, added a new reputational cost that likely proved too great for some countries to bear.

With online censorship growing around the world, and little consensus about Internet policy, the ITU could reprise this Cold War role today— it should once again watch the watchers. Or, more accurately, help monitor the Internet monitors and censors. The ITU’s radio monitoring program, after all, constitutes a successful and technically sound international predecessor to more recent efforts to map and monitor global patterns of Internet censorship, like the OpenNet Initiative.

Of course, the difference between such non-governmental efforts and an ITU led Internet censorship monitor, is that latter would, like its earlier radio incarnation, have a deeper pool of resources to draw on for technical implementation. Or if actually implementing a monitoring program makes less sense, the ITU or UN could help fund, sponsor, and provide an international platform to publicize current efforts, with the ITU’s global reach adding even greater reputational costs to the dark art of Internet censorship.

The ITU is here to stay. That leaves researchers, activists, and human rights groups with both an opportunity, and burden, to articulate a vision for the agency that helps, rather than hurts, global Internet connectivity.

This is just one such vision, though it is one not only with historical precedent, but clearly consistent with the ITU’s aim to facilitate “global interconnection and interoperability”.

And one, hopefully, to help keep the Internet’s enemies in check.

About Jon Penney

Jon Penney is a lawyer, Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and a doctoral student at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, where his interdisciplinary research explores regulatory chilling effects online. In 2011, he was a Google Policy Fellow at the Citizen Lab, where he helped lead the OpenNet Initiative’s new Transparency Project, a public/private research collaboration founded to encourage corporate transparency about government and law enforcement data requests. He was also Project Coordinator for the Privacy Value Networks Project, a large scale, multi-university, multi-million dollar Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (UK) funded project on data privacy, led by the Oxford Internet Institute. A graduate of Dalhousie University, he previously studied at Columbia Law School as a Fulbright Scholar and at Oxford as a Mackenzie King Scholar, where he also Associate Editor of the Oxford University Commonwealth Law Journal. He previously taught law as a Senior Research Fellow and Lecturer at Victoria University, New Zealand, and, before all that, worked as a federal lawyer and, from time to time, as a policy advisor. His research concerns constitutional/human rights law, intellectual property, & digital media policy & culture, particularly censorship, privacy, and security.

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