Yet for countries still grappling with how communications have been transformed by the Internet, ITU and the treaty are viewed as the best avenues for plugging themselves into the global information economy. For developing nations that don’t have an effective broadband infrastructure, bureaucratic and regulatory measures can allow them to benefit financially from the traffic that crosses their borders.
But treaties are static instruments that often are unable to adapt and adjust to the fast pace of Internet innovation, said Sally Shipman Wentworth, senior manager for public policy at the nonprofit Internet Society. ‘‘Further, we do not believe that we should simply take the 1988 regulatory model that applied to the old telephone system and apply it to the Internet,’’ she said.
A proposal offered by a European association of telecommunications network operators would put pressure on content providers such as Google, Facebook and Netflix to offset the costs of delivering Internet traffic to end-users. Traffic increasingly includes bandwidth-hungry video, and the proposal from the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association essentially argues that the investment needed to expand and improve data delivery should be borne by the operators and the content providers.
Verveer called the proposal unworkable and said it would have unintended consequences, such as blocking Harvard, MIT and other universities from putting courses online at no cost to users in places where access to education is already limited. ‘‘If it became necessary to pay in order to make these courses available, they would predictably become less available, which would be very unfortunate,’’ he said.
Even what appear to be minor alterations to the treaty can have far-reaching consequences. A coalition of Arab states has proposed expanding the treaty’s definition of telecommunications by adding the word ‘‘processing.’’ The change, if made, would ‘‘essentially swallow the Internet’s functions with only a tiny edit to existing rules,’’ Robert McDowell, a Republican member of the Federal Communications Commission, said late last month at a congressional hearing.
The threat to Internet freedom won’t come in the form of a ‘‘full-frontal assault,’’ McDowell said at the hearing, ‘‘but through insidious and seemingly innocuous expansions of intergovernmental powers.’’ His warning resonated with members of the House Energy and Commerce communications and technology subcommittee.
Several lawmakers questioned Verveer, who also testified, and McDowell about the relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Toure, the ITU’s secretary general. Their fear is that Putin, who long has pushed for centralized control of the Internet, will use his allegedly close ties to Toure to accomplish that goal. Toure, a native of Mali, received advanced degrees in electronics and telecommunications from universities in Moscow and Leningrad.
‘‘Is this relationship a concern?’’ asked Republican Rep. Greg Walden, the subcommittee’s chairman. ‘‘What steps are we taking to be able to counterbalance that relationship?’’
Verveer told Walden he has no doubts about Toure’s honesty and fairness.
But McDowell struck a more ominous tone. Putin’s ‘‘designs’’ need to be taken very seriously, he said, and urged proponents of Internet freedom to be on guard for ‘‘camouflaged subterfuge’’ that could threaten the Internet’s future.
International Telecommunication Union: http://www.itu.int/en/Pages/default.aspx