The United States is unprepared for an international fight that’s brewing over whether the Internet will remain free from government regulations or fall increasingly under the control of emerging global powers, Federal Communications Commissioner Robert McDowell warned Monday
“The proponents of Internet freedom and prosperity have been asleep at the switch,” Mr. McDowell, the lone Republican serving at the FCC, told editors and reporters at The Washington Times. “Or maybe I should say asleep at the router.”
The 193-member International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a U.N. agency, will meet in Dubai next December to renegotiate the 24-year-old treaty that deals with international oversight of the Internet. A growing number of countries are pushing greater governmental control and management of the Web’s availability, financial model and infrastructure.
They believe the current model is “dominated” by the U.S., and want to “take that control and power away,” Mr. McDowell said. China and Russia support the effort, but so do non-Western U.S. allies such as Brazil, South Africa and India.
“Thus far, those who are pushing for new intergovernmental powers over the Internet are far more energized and organized than those who favor the Internet freedom and prosperity,” he said.
While growth of the Internet has exploded under a minimal regulatory model over the past two decades, “significant government and civil society support is developing for a different policy outlook,” according to an analysis by lawyers David Gross and M. Ethan Lucarelli on the legal intelligence website www.lexology.com.
“Driven largely by the global financial troubles of recent years, together with persistent concerns about the implications of the growth of the Internet for national economies, social structures and cultures, some governments and others are now actively reconsidering the continuing viability of liberalization and competition-based policies,” they wrote.
Mr. McDowell is trying to halt that trend. He has met with State Department Ambassador Philip Verveer and Assistant Secretary of Commerce Larry Strickling, two people who will determine the country’s role in this debate.
“They’re very well aware of it,” Mr. McDowell said. “The Obama administration is in the right position. But my concern is that we’re behind the curve.”
The U.S. and other Western democracies would likely “opt out” of the treaty, he predicted, leading to a “Balkanization” of the global information network. Governments under the treaty would have greater authority to regulate rates and local access, and such critical emerging issues as cybersecurity and data privacy standards would be subject to international control.
Mr. McDowell said the treaty could open the door to allowing revenue-hungry national governments to charge Internet giants such as Google, Facebook and Amazon for their data traffic on a “per click” basis. The more website visitors those companies get, the more they pay.
The FCC commissioner said he is trying to sound the alarm about the U.N. effort because he believes the Internet has thrived precisely because of the absence of central government control.
In 1988, when the treaty was signed, fewer than 100,000 people used the Internet, Mr. McDowell said. Shortly after it was privatized in 1995, that number jumped to 16 million users. As of this year, it is up to 2 billion users, with another 500,000 joining every day.
“This phenomenal growth was the direct result of governments keeping their hands off the Internet sphere and relying instead on a private-sector, multi-stakeholder Internet governance model to keep it thriving,” he said.
Mr. McDowell attributed the massive growth of the Internet to freedom.
“So the whole point is, the more it migrated away from government control, the more it blossomed,” he said.
The treaty could effectively split the world into two Internets, he said, each with its own regulatory regime. If the ITU agrees to go forward with plans to regulate the Internet, Mr. McDowell expects the U.S. and countries such as Britain and Japan to simply refuse to participate.
“I think you’d see a number of countries - probably Western, capitalist democracies - opting out,” he said.
That still could create problems for e-commerce, making it difficult for U.S. companies to use the Internet to connect to buyers in countries that opt for a regulation-based Internet, Mr. McDowell said. It also would lead to problems from an engineering perspective, as firms and other users try to figure out how to deal with the multiple systems.
Backers of a treaty revision have garnered support from about 90 countries in the ITU, short of the 97 needed for a majority for the treaty to take effect. Each member state still must ratify it.
Despite the potential threat, the issue has been largely ignored in the U.S., Mr. McDowell said.
He said he has been traveling around the world to spread the word. Next year, he is scheduled to be at the World Radio Conference in Geneva.
“I’m going there to talk one-on-one with countries about this issue and give them some data that will hopefully lay out for them why this is bad news for their own countries, for their own prosperity,” Mr. McDowell said.
The renegotiation might not be for another year, but “the critical time is now.”