In recent weeks, the corner of the blogosphere that concerns itself with Internet-related policy has come alive with posts, comments and op-eds addressing the theory that a little-known United Nations telecom agency, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), is gearing up for an Internet power grab. Concerns about this possibility spurred a U.S. Congressional hearing last month, and across the Atlantic, a June 19 workshop hosted at the European Parliament in Brussels provided a forum to sort out “Challenges to the Internet Governance Regime” as they relate to the ITU.

The UN agency, which is made up of 193 member states and specializes in information and communication technologies, is in the midst of preparing for a December conference where it will re-negotiate an important treaty establishing the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs). These regulations lay the ground rules for how big telecoms interact with one another in an international context, setting up systems for things like revenue-sharing, and have historically only dealt with telephony and never reached into the realm of Internet architecture. At Tuesday’s workshop, representatives from the European Commission, civil society organizations, Google, and other organizations were on hand to share their insights about the how this treaty revision may affect Internet governance.

William Drake, an International Fellow of the University of Zurich and expert on Internet policy, challenged the framework that has been debated so far. “It isn’t in fact the case that the UN will send in black helicopters to take over the Internet,” he assured participants. Waving a slim green booklet totaling fewer than 30 pages, he declared, “This is what all the fuss is about.” It was the latest compilation of the ITRs, the telecom rules that ITU member states last agreed upon in 1988 – long before mobile devices with Internet connectivity revolutionized the telecommunications industry.

While Drake said he thought some discussions around the revisions could be discounted because they seemed “driven by various political agendas,” he was nevertheless very clear that he viewed certain proposals as highly problematic since they would indeed result in “a restrictive effect on the Internet” if approved.

Drake’s analysis of the situation was that it has less to do with a hostile takeover and more to do with the financial upheaval that has impacted the telecommunications industry in the last couple decades. The Internet has turned the traditional business model of major phone companies on its head. Big telecoms are seeking to recover their losses, he argued, and they’re trying to redraw the lines around who and what would be regulated by the ITRs.

It reflects “an effort by telecom companies in many parts of the world to leverage a multinational institution to recover market shares that they had lost in the face of liberalization,” Drake suggested. “And in that context … many other issues are being added to the pot: cybersecurity, censorship and so forth.” As preparations for the conference move forward, many countries have tossed in their pet projects “to see what will stick,” in his view.

Some ideas, such as proposed cybersecurity provisions put forward by Russia, could reinforce state surveillance power, Drake said. Taken as a whole, he added, the proposed regulatory revisions would essentially subject “everybody involved in providing Internet services” to the ITRs.

Andrea Glorioso, an Italian Policy Officer with the European Commission, touched on the geopolitical context out of which these proposals have emerged, acknowledging that some proposals are being advanced by nations that are unhappy with the status quo.

“We do believe that the Internet has become so essential on the global stage that we need to be thinking seriously about the geopolitical balance that this entails,” he said. “And what I’m trying to say here is that even though we are broadly fine with the current setup of global Internet governance, we also believe that we need to engage in a dialogue with those parts of the world that are not fine with the current setup. … At the end of the day, when we go to a discussion where numbers are counted, we need to count the numbers. What we are trying to achieve here is dialogue.”

Meanwhile, comments from members of civil society organizations also shed some light on how European stakeholders are framing the debate. Joe McNamee, EU Advocacy Coordinator of European Digital Rights (EDRi), aired criticism both of the ITU and the U.S. Government, which has positioned itself as an opponent to any ITU efforts to subject the Internet to new regulatory controls.

The ITU, McNamee said, “is fundamentally unsuitable for the regulation of the Internet. It’s slow-moving, it’s closed, and its high corporate membership fees can only be seen as a way of selling influence in the organization. It’s so closed that it’s not even possible for citizens to gain access to their documents without paying for them,” he added, giving a nod to civil society organizations’ public demand several weeks ago for greater ITU transparency.

The U.S. has positioned itself against expanded ITU powers over the Internet, but McNamee also doled out a harsh critique of the U.S.’s own Internet-related policy proposals, invoking the now-defunct Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) which was hotly debated by Congress earlier this year.

McNamee seemed convinced that the bureaucratic ITU would do its best to subject Internet-related entities to the ITRs as a kind of power grab. Paraphrasing “a wise person,” he said, “old bureaucracies don’t die, they file themselves in a different folder. Their next folder is the Internet, unfortunately.”

The debate surrounding the ITU and its upcoming renegotiation of the ITRs continues on. While Drake and McNamee clearly believe a problem for Internet freedom is looms on the horizon with the negotiation of the ITRs, Milton Mueller of the Internet Governance Project noted in this blog that as long as the ITU boundaries are kept within international telecommunication services, the worst consequences could be avoided.

EFF agrees. If we don’t maintain this distinction, we face the prospect of bringing an intergovernmental organization into Internet governance. ITU's mandate should be kept as it is: International telecommunications service. The ITRs' definitions should not be amended to include Internet services or cyber-security as part of international telecommunications. It’s also important to ensure that any changes made to the way telecom companies interconnect don’t empower monopolistic companies to act as gatekeepers to Internet services.

These issues will culminate at the treaty-writing forum in December, when the ITU’s World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) is held in Dubai. The ITRs were last updated in 1988, so any problematic provisions that make their way into the treaty renegotiation this winter will stay with us for a very long time, and could shape things for decades to come. The highly bureaucratic ITU is subject to political influence, and the agenda of an industry that is worried about preserving its bottom line. In this context, it is negotiating proposals without transparency and behind closed doors. Therefore, civil society organizations must remain alert, and push back against any measures that could have a restrictive effect on the Internet. EFF will continue monitoring this issue, particularly as it pertains to cybersecurity.