U.S. Ambassador Terry Kramer Says Leave Well Enough Alone for Regulating Internet

By Peter Bernstein October 09, 2012

While the topics here are about technology today, how technology will be used tomorrow has moved to center stage. The reason is the run up to the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU’s) convention in December in Dubai where the 24 year-old treaty governing the way international voice, data and video traffic is handled will be revisited for the first time. Speaking to reporters in Geneva, Switzerland, U.S. Ambassador Terry Kramer, who will head the U.S. delegation at the World Conference on International Telecommunications, has set the Internet abuzz with his comments.

With the rapid spread of the Internet around the world, Facebook for instance now has 1 billion users, the fact that the 178 signatories to the treaty have decided to see if the treaty is worth an update to look into ways of increasing collaboration and use telecoms to drive economic development, especially in the face of incredible technologic change on its face appears to be one of those “it is about time,” endeavors. However, it is fraught with all types of risks, and therefore the political wrangling is going to be intense to say the least. 

Indeed, given the importance and impact of international concerns and ultimately actions surrounding potentially such things as cyber surveillance, cyber attacks, and freedom of expression, rather than paraphrase the Ambassador’s remarks, it is worth taking a look at his actual words as to what at a high-level will be the stance of the United States at the conference.

The Ambassador, certainly turned heads when he noted that doing nothing:

 "…would not be a terrible outcome at all…The natural path we're on is pretty good… Does that mean there aren't things that could improve? Absolutely there are things that could improve. But the best thing to do, if you could pick two options, one is to get prescriptive and get into a lot of things versus leaving things open, we're much better by leaving things open."

On regulating the Internet

As noted in the press, he rejected suggestions that the United States was taking a negative approach to meeting, saying other countries' ideas about restricting the growth of the Internet were the real negatives. He stated that:

"We need to avoid suffocating the Internet space through well-meaning but overly prescriptive proposals that would seek to control content or seek to mandate routing and payment practices. That would send the Internet back to a circuit switch era that is actually passing in history”.

On cyber security

Despite the sharp rise in cyber crimes, Kramer reiterated Washington's opposition to proposals from a number of countries to expand the ITU's authority to regulate the Internet. ITU regulations were:

“ …not an appropriate or useful venue to address cyber security." "There are a lot of cyber threats but the nature of cyber issues requires agility, it requires a technical expertise, and it requires a distributed effort, so we are very sensitive about any one organization taking on the sole role of solving cyber threats." 

As pointed out, however, he would not say if the United States was using this as an excuse to that it could continue to conduct its cyber foreign policy independent of how the international community feels about such activities.

"If people have a concern with what the U.S. does, they certainly can raise those issues and there are international environments where those things get discussed. Our message is in the ITRs, that is not the right place to bring those up."

Charging users for sending Internet content

Kramer also said that Washington strongly disagreed with a proposal from the European Telecommunications Network Operators (ETNO) calling for network operators to be able to charge for sending content on to Internet users.

"Making content generation more costly and uneconomical will likely lead many content providers and non-profits to restrict or charge for downloads, even leading to black-outs in less developed countries.”

He added that the U.S. strongly opposed proposals from some "non-democratic nations" for the tracking and monitoring of data routing, which he cautioned:

 "…makes it very easy for nations to monitor traffic, including content and customer information”.

He summed up with the following: 

“The Internet today is a very vibrant and dynamic place ... Anything that seeks to put structure and control and limitations around that is a very worrisome philosophical trend for us."

Bi-partisan support?

The ITU convention will be held post the presidential election in the United States.  And, while nothing seems to be out of bounds in the currently toxic political environment pre-election, it is hard to see where there could be political differences between the candidates when it comes to this issue. A central tenant of U.S. policy domestically and internationally is to limit anything that could stifle the innovation engine that is the Internet. Plus, anything, or any international governing body that limit the United States’ ability to use any means necessary to defend its interests and fully prosecute punitive measures against it enemies in an age of increased electronic warfare, is obviously viewed as a non-starter.

For those of us in America who can be xenophobic at times, particularly every four years when we elect a president, while such statements as those of Ambassador Kramer may make big headlines globally, they are not top of mind in the daily give-and-take going one and are unlikely to appear on the radar screen. This should not be construed as a being a case of lack of concern or attention. In fact, no matter the outcome of the election in the U.S., don’t look for a change of heart on this subject. 

The Ambassador may have said that the U.S. is always looking for ways to cooperate with all members of the international community, and even noted that when it comes to things like collaboration for making global networking traffic work better in light of changes that have occurred in the past two decades should be encouraged.   That said, the electronic theater of global engagement is one where the U.S. is not one where even bickering politicians are likely to disagree if they perceive the U.S. is threatened by having it freedom to act in its own interests, including its electronic manifest destiny, hindered in any way. 

December in Dubai is going to be an interesting place to say the least. Leaving well enough alone is the message about the media. It will be fascinating to see what transpires.

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