June 1, 2012 | By Parker Higgins

Congressional Witnesses Agree: Multistakeholder Processes Are Right for Internet Regulation

Yesterday morning, the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology held a hearing on "International Proposals to Regulate the Internet," focusing on the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), an important treaty-writing event set to take place in Dubai this December. The WCIT is organized by an UN agency called the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a slow-moving and bureaucratic regulatory organization established in 1865 to oversee telegraph regulations. The ITU Member States adopted a legally binding set of telecommunication regulations in 1988, and now some countries are seeking to expand those regulations to cover the Internet.

Online anonymity, privacy and free expression are likely to be under attack under an ITU model. ITU officials have publically stated that anonymity shouldn't exist in the future. Moreover, countries like Russia and China, in particular, have been prominent advocates of codes of conduct that seek to protect national governmental powers over the Internet, including provisions that seek to censor the net.

It's worth noting though, that the threat posed by the ITU is not limited to an outright "takeover" by Russia or China. ITU's vision of Internet policy-making is more like "taking control" than the transparent and bottom-up multi-stakeholder process typically associated with Internet governance. The current negotiations, for example, consist of proposals being discussed under terms of secrecy, circumventing any transparent discussion. And much like the parties behind the unpopular IP regulations in trade agreements like ACTA and TPP, the ITU member states are also refusing to release documents that make up the amendments and preparatory materials that they will propose. We have also seen censorships and surveillance measures in the name of copyright enforcement or by authoritarian regimes, and both are a real problem.

To their credit, the witnesses at yesterday's hearing — including former Ambassador David Gross, Senior Manager of Public Policy for the Internet Society Sally Shipman Wentworth, and "father of the Internet" Vint Cerf — were all clear that the stakes were high, and that any process that decides the direction of the Internet must be based on a foundation of multistakeholderism.

Cerf, for example, was unequivocal in his testimony [pdf]:

I believe that the multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance and technical management has been, and will continue to be, the best way to address the technical and policy issues facing the Internet globally.

Shipman Wentworth expressed similar doubts about the possibility that the treaty making process could produce a positive outcome [pdf]:

it is not clear to the Internet Society that the international treaty making process represents the most effective way to manage cross-border Internet communications, or that some of the proposals currently being floated are consistent – or even compatible – with the multistakeholder model of Internet governance that has emerged over the past 15 years.

With so much on the line, in terms of the power for the open Internet to spur permissionless innovation and significant advances in international freedom of expression, there can be no question that handing the keys to an organization incapable of engaging in multistakeholder discussions is a profoundly bad idea. Multistakeholder processes are the way to ensure the users' input is included, and not left by the wayside. And multistakeholder processes cannot be multistakeholder in name only: we remind all governments that a truly multistakeholder participation model requires equal footing for every relevant stakeholder including civil society, the private sector, the technical community, and participating governments. Any process that claims to be multistakeholder must respect human rights as a baseline for any policy dialogue. The users must be represented in the development of Internet policy because the future of the Internet is too important to be left to companies and governments alone.

That's why EFF has joined European Digital Rights, CIPPIC and CDT and a coalition of civil society organizations from around the world in demanding that the organization behind WCIT release all of its preparatory materials and treaty proposals for public review. We urge the ITU to ensure enough transparency that the outcomes of the WCIT and its preparatory process are in the interest of all stakeholders.

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