FCC commissioner: global Internet regulation would hurt free speech

A pending treaty which would grant foreign governments greater control over the Internet would also undermine domestic cyber security and stymie progress within developing nations, said Federal Communications Commission member Robert McDowell.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed this week, the FCC commissioner warned that an upcoming February 27 Geneva talk between members of the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union (ITU) could eventually “upend the Internet’s flourishing regime” by undoing a 1988 treaty that set the stage for how millions of global citizens would freely use the web.

“Russia, China and their allies within the 193 member states of the ITU want to renegotiate the 1988 treaty to expand its reach into previously unregulated areas,” wrote McDowell, calling several proposals “chilling.”

McDowell said the following (and more) could come to pass if participating countries succeed in reworking international law:

• Subject cyber security and data privacy to international control

• Allow foreign phone companies to charge fees for “international” Internet traffic, perhaps even on a “per-click” basis for certain Web destinations, with the goal of generating revenue for state-owned phone companies and government treasuries

• Impose unprecedented economic regulations such as mandates for rates, terms and conditions for currently unregulated traffic-swapping agreements known as “peering”

• Regulate international mobile roaming rates and practices

“A top-down, centralized, international regulatory overlay is antithetical to the architecture of the Net, which is a global network of networks without borders,” said McDowell. “No government, let alone an intergovernmental body, can make engineering and economic decisions in lightning-fast Internet time.”

Furthermore, McDowell argued that changing the law would grant certain foreign regimes additional power to limit broad access to the web.

“Productivity, rising living standards and the spread of freedom everywhere, but especially in the developing world, would grind to a halt as engineering and business decisions become politically paralyzed within a global regulatory body,” he said.

Could you imagine an Arab Spring happening without mobile access to social media sites? According to McDowell, some countries can and consider it a worthwhile goal. If they have their way, future revolutions won’t be broadcast over the Internet.

“Strong-arm regimes are threatened by popular outcries for political freedom that are empowered by unfettered Internet connectivity,” said McDowell. “They have formed impressive coalitions, and their efforts have progressed significantly.”

McDowell urged opponents of the new treaty, including the U.S., to “awake from our slumber and engage.”

“Merely saying ‘no’ to any changes to the current structure of Internet governance is likely to be a losing proposition,” said McDowell. “A more successful strategy would be for proponents of Internet freedom and prosperity within every nation to encourage a dialogue among all interested parties, including governments and the ITU, to broaden the multi-stakeholder umbrella with the goal of reaching consensus to address reasonable concerns.”