European Parliament speaks out against centralised internet control

Out-Law News | 26 Nov 2012 | 4:56 pm | 2 min. read

It would be inappropriate for a single centralised international institution to be given regulatory authority over internet governance or traffic, the European Parliament has said.

The Parliament has published a resolution stating its opposition to proposed extension of the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) to include the internet. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations agency which oversees the ITRs, is meeting in Dubai next week to re-negotiate the rules as part of a World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). The ITRs currently govern international telephone, television and radio networks.

According to the resolution, some of the changes proposed by the ITU would "negatively impact" the content, operation and security of the internet and the free flow of information online. If passed as presented, the proposals could see the ITU become the "ruling power" over certain aspects of the internet, it said.

"[This] could end the present bottom-up, multi-stakeholder model," the resolution said. "[The European Parliament] expresses concern that, if adopted, these proposals may seriously affect the development of, and access to, online services for end users, as well as the digital economy as a whole."

It added that regulation of the internet should "continue to be defined at a comprehensive and multi-stakeholder level".

The ITRs form a binding international treaty dealing with the definition of international telecommunications services, cooperation between countries and how to calculate charges for traffic exchanged between carriers in different countries. They have not been revised since they came into force in 1988.

Both the US Government and search giant Google have already spoken out against the changes, with the latter urging individuals to sign an online petition against allowing governments to regulate the internet. Google has claimed that some of the proposals could "permit governments to censor legitimate speech – or even allow them to cut off internet access".

The ITU is not publishing individual countries' proposals for change ahead of the WCIT, however according to a leaked document (3-page / 77KB PDF) the Russian Federation is calling for powers such as "the allotment, assignment and reclamation of internet numbering, naming, addressing and identification resources" to be taken away from the US. ICANN, a non-profit body officially operating under the remit of the US Department of Commerce, currently coordinates the codes and numbering systems underpinning the internet, while national internet service providers (ISPs) assign individual addresses.

In a statement published by the US Department of State its ambassador to the conference, Terry Kramer, said that the US would oppose any such moves.

"The US is concerned that proposals by some other governments could lead to greater regulatory burdens being placed on the international telecom sector, or perhaps even extended to the internet sector – a result the US would oppose," the statement said.

"We will not support any effort to broaden the scope of the ITRs to facilitate any censorship of content or blocking the free flow of information and ideas," Kramer said. "The United States  also believes that existing multi-stakeholder institutions, incorporating industry and civil society, have functioned effectively and will continue to ensure the health and growth of the internet and all its benefits."

According to the BBC, the ITU has made it clear that any changes to the ITRs will have unanimous support. Its secretary-general, Dr Hamadoun Toure, told the BBC that rather than putting any matters to a vote "whatever one single country does not accept will not pass".

However, Toure has been criticised for comments made as part of a speech in June indicating that the WCIT should address "the current disconnect between sources of revenue and sources of costs". Google has suggested that this could force content providers such as YouTube, Facebook and Skype to pay to access developing networks.

In its resolution, the European Parliament said that it was "concerned" that reform proposals could include "the establishment of new profit mechanisms". These could "seriously threaten the open and competitive nature of the internet, [drive] up prices [and hamper] innovation", it said.

It called on member states to "prevent any changes to the ITRs which would be harmful to the openness of the internet, net neutrality, the end-to-end principle, universal service obligations and the participatory governance entrusted to multiple actors" as part of their national delegations.