Deadline approaches for Russia and China-led U.N. Internet takeover

Josh Peterson Tech Editor
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The State Department is expected to finally name a lead negotiator next month for high level international talks with the U.N. in December that would decide the fate of the Internet, a senior U.S. official told Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio last week.

The nomination would come nearly a year after then-Russian Prime Minister Vladmir Putin announced in June 2011 that he and his allies sought to establish international control over the Internet. At the time, Putin had “reaffirmed” Russia’s support of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) — a little-known U.N. agency responsible for the international regulation of long-distance calls and satellite orbits — as his preferred instrument to bring about international cooperation on cybersecurity and Internet issues. Russia is a co-founder of the ITU, dating back to 1866.

Following Putin’s announcement, Russia, and several of its authoritarian allies —  China, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan — submitted a document entitled “The International Code of Conduct for Information Security” to the U.N. in September 2011. The document was hailed by the Chinese government as “the first relatively comprehensive and systematic document in the world … to formulate international rules to standardize information and cyberspace behavior.”

The Daily Caller first reported in December 2011 that FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell warned the Federal Communications Bar Association of the effort by China, Russia and other authoritarian regimes to upend the Internet from its current model — a voluntary multi-stakeholder process, loosely governed through various U.S.-based nongovernmental international organizations.

Russia and its allies are currently pushing to renegotiate a treaty that deregulated international telecommunications and set the stage for the expansion of the Internet. First established in 1988, 193 countries are expected to vote on a new version of the treaty, the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITR), at an ITU conference in Dubai this December.

McDowell in a February Wall Street Journal Op-Ed continued his efforts to sound an alarm and draw attention to the issue.

During a recent Senate hearing, McDowell told Rubio that the State Department — which would take the lead role on negotiations with the ITU — still has yet to appoint a head of the U.S. delegations to the conference.

“The commission plays, actually, a supporting role as a sort of technical advisor to the State Department,” said McDowell. “The State Department takes the lead role on that. I understand that through both private and public information that the State Department will be announcing a head of the U.S. delegation, a head negotiator, probably next month sometime.”

“This comes at a crucial time as some very crucial meetings are going to take place internationally later in June leading towards a treaty negotiation in Dubai this December,” said McDowell. “So it’s really of utmost importance that the United States cultivate allies throughout the world and especially the developing world, which could be devastated by international regulation of Internet governance.”

Rubio, no stranger to the fight for Internet freedom, denounced federal regulation of Internet service providers by way of the FCC’s net neutrality regulations during the November 2011 Senate showdown and withdrew his support for the Protect IP Act (PIPA), the Senate’s version of the much-despised Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and called upon Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to reconsider bringing the bill to the Senate floor, when thousands of websites — including Wikipedia and Google — protested the legislation in January.

“Any place that bans certain terms from search should not be a leader in international Internet regulatory framework,” said Rubio, referencing China’s practice of censoring certain keywords in search engines.

Believed to be on the short-list of potential running mates for presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Rubio also declared during a talk in March at The Heritage Foundation that Fidel Castro’s Cuba could not survive a technological opening; during a speech at the Brookings Institution in April, he praised the role of Americans in creating the Internet.

McDowell was, however, encouraged by a recent joint statement made by the White House, the State Department and the Commerce Department about the upcoming negotiations, which he said the FCC was “on board with.” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski affirmed the Obama Administration’s stance that it was committed to strongly opposing the proposals to bring the Internet under an international regulatory framework.

Internet freedom has been a major foreign policy issue for the State Department since the beginning of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s tenure. Called “the godmother of 21st century statecraft” by her Senior Advisor for Innovation Alec Ross in a July 2010 New York Times feature, Clinton is credited with ushering in the use of mobile digital technology to “amplify” traditional diplomatic efforts and encourage cyber activism.

Scott Cleland, a member of the United States Department of State Advisory Committee on International Communications and Information Policy, told TheDC that the renegotiation of the ITR would essentially create an “ITUnet,” an international alternative to the Internet with much stricter governance. The U.N. being a voluntary organization, however, would not have enforcement power to coerce nations into compliance with the treaty.

“Everything about the Internet is voluntary, and in order for this to work, countries would have to leave the Internet and join an ‘ITUnet,'” said Cleland, who served under the previous Bush Administration, in addition to the current Obama Administration.

“Only authoritarian regimes and their allies want an ‘ITUnet,'” said Cleland, “That would provide political cover for them to take control of their national Internet.”

Not everyone, however, is convinced of the State Department’s efficacy in the promotion of Internet freedom, nor the U.S. government’s own track record on Internet issues.

“America’s “Internet freedom agenda” is at best toothless and at worst counterproductive,” said Evgeny Morozov, a fellow at the DC-based progressive think tank New America Foundation, in a recent piece in Slate critical of both the State Department’s and the hacktivist group Anonymous’ Internet freedom agendas. New America Foundation has worked closely with the State Department on various Internet freedom initiatives.

“While Hillary Clinton likes to give speeches in which she fashions herself the world’s greatest defender of “Internet freedom,” the harsh reality is that her own government is its greatest enemy,” said Morozov. “Given the never-ending flow of draconian copyright and cybersecurity laws coming from Washington, this fact is getting harder and harder to conceal from the global public, who starts to wonder why American diplomats keep criticizing Russia or China but don’t say anything about the impressive online spying operation that the National Security Agency is building in Utah.”

Democrats and Republicans have been quarreling over how to expand executive branch power over the Internet and to regulate and surveil Americans: the FBI wants to wiretap social networks, the CIA wants to spy on Americans through their dishwashers, and a member of Congress wanted to give DHS the ability to spy on the legislative and judicial branches.

“While focusing on (and overselling) the liberating promise of social media in authoritarian regimes,” said Morozov, “it conceals a number of emerging domestic threats that have nothing to do with dictators—and everything to do with aggressive surveillance, disappearing privacy, and the astonishing greed of Silicon Valley.”

The State Department did not return The Daily Caller’s request for comment.

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