‘If It Ain’t Broke Don’t Fix It’: EU Adds Its Voice To The Chorus Opposing More Internet Regulation Ahead Of Key ITU Dubai Meeting

The European Union today became the latest official body to back an open Internet, ahead of an important United Nations meeting to update Internet and telecoms regulation for the first time in 24 years. The International Telecommunication Union, a UN agency, is meeting in December in Dubai for the World Conference On International Telecommunications to revise the International Telecommunication Regulation treaty. In the lead up, several countries, and even some private companies, have been lobbying for changes that would see nations get more control of how the Internet is used in their countries.

For the ITU, the crucial thing will be for both sides to continue a dialog ahead of writing anything down. “The ITU will definitely try to avoid actual votes because they could lead to some delegations walking away from the table,” a source close to the situation told TechCrunch.

The EU will be focusing its efforts on firewalls and domain management — or in the EU’s words, where “cybersecurity could be used as a euphemism for controlling freedom of expression,” and “suggestions on routing and traffic management in view of the threat this may pose to the open internet.”

“There is a real battle about how to govern the Internet. The European Union’s firm view is that the Internet works. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. It’s a priceless global asset for everyone and should stay open and global,” Neelie Kroes, the vice president of the European Commission, said in a statement. “The [existing] ITR treaty has worked because it is high level and it should stay high-level. That’s the thrust of the positions we are taking to Dubai.”

The European Commission’s position follows on from opposition from other groups, including the European Parliament, which would be one of the bodies that would need to approve any potential regulation before it came into force in the region. Other critics have included the Internet Society and the Center for Democracy and Technology.

On the other side of the argument are countries that are looking for more approved and stronger control of how the Internet is used to spread information, and for how it is monetized. The list is fairly predictable: it includes many of the same countries that have raised firewalls against Internet content that they deem contrary to national interests.

They include China and Russia. Russia’s proposal to the ITU, for example, includes the following requested amendment for current legislation:

“Member States shall have the sovereign right to regulate the activities of operating agencies providing Internet access services within their national territory.”

Russia also seeks to have more control over how domain names are registered and maintained in the country. Russia, coincidentally, recently implemented its own firewall, which it says is to block content harmful to children, although many believe that because it can be used to block out entire websites it could be used for other kinds of censorship in a country not renowned for press freedom.

Although the ITU has not been publishing submissions ahead of the Dubai event, a Wikileaks-style site, WCITleaks, is making them public as and when it receives them. You can browse this site to see for yourself what’s been unearthed so far.

Still, although there are efforts on both sides to push their cases, and the implications are potentially huge, it could be a long time before whatever the ITU ends up deciding makes it into any actionable format. Another major treaty that came out of the UN, the Kyoto protocol on climate change, was first ratified in 1997. But 15 years later, it still has yet to be approved by all the member states. (The U.S. is the big holdout.)

Today’s full statement from the EU is below.

Digital Agenda: EU defends open internet at Dubai international telecommunications conference

The 193 Member countries of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) will meet in Dubai from 3rd to 14th December 2012 to review the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITR) Treaty. The World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) will review the Treaty for the first time since 1988. Since then the situation in many ITU countries has changed dramatically – in most cases the previously state-owned monopoly telecommunications providers have been privatised and competition introduced to national markets, not to mention the dramatic changes brought by the internet.

The success of the 1988 ITR Treaty lay in the fact that it was primarily a set of high level principles which facilitated international telecommunications rather than detailed regulations.  This meant that the subsequent explosion of innovation in services and communication technologies, such as those associated with the internet, was not hampered by detailed international rules and regulations.

The EU Member States agree that high level principles must continue to prevail in the future in order to ensure that future developments in information and communication technologies continue and the economic growth associated with such developments can flourish. Some non-EU countries have tabled proposals for a significant increase in the scope of the Treaty and the regulatory burden on operators, including internet service providers. The EU believes that there is no justification for such proposals and is concerned about the potentially negative impact on innovation and costs, both for operator and end-users.

The EU’s common position is:

(a)      not to support any proposals that may affect EU common rules or alter their scope, or introduce obligations on operators which go beyond those already provided for under these rules;

(b)     to support proposals that seek to ensure that the revised Treaty remains high level, strategic and technology neutral and to oppose proposals to make ITU recommendations binding;

(c)     to ensure the ITR revision process does not lead to an increase in the scope of the current ITR Treaty or to an increase in the responsibilities exercised by the ITU under its current mandate.

(d)     to support proposals to respect human rights in relation to international telecommunications, such as on privacy and personal data protection in relation to personal data and communications

(e)     to support measures to promote greater international cooperation in ensuring the robustness of networks used for international telecommunications traffic;

(f)     to support pro-competitive measures and greater transparency on prices, for international telecommunications traffic and roaming, based on commercial negotiations in a free and fair marketplace.