American Net Leadership Is a Timely Foreign Policy Challenge

Much of the world’s current attention understandably is devoted to troubling activities in Russia and the Middle East. Meanwhile, a very important gathering of nations is taking place in Busan, South Korea–but largely away from public view, unfortunately.

Busan is the site of the Plenipotentiary Conference, nicknamed the Plenipot, at which countries around the world will, among other things, establish the strategic plan of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a specialized agency of the United Nations. One of the key policy questions that could be decided in Busan is whether the ITU will expand its legal authority to include Internet policy issues. Notably, the member governments most interested in asserting ITU control over the Internet are also interested in placing restrictions on the Internet within their own borders.

Turning back the tide of government suppression of the Internet represents a formidable task. At the conclusion of the ITU World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in 2012, dozens of countries, including the United States, declined to sign the final document. While it was a non-binding treaty, it was significant in that it included language that would broaden the ITU mandate to the Internet, among other issues.

Debating the Future of the Internet

This language is once again up for debate in South Korea, and the stakes are much higher at the Plenipot due to the possibility of changes to the ITU Constitution, which would be binding on all Member States. It’s critical that the United States continue to assert positive leadership throughout the various debates taking place.

Those in the bloc of countries favoring increased authority, for example, will point to the ITU language ratified at the WCIT, which encourages their ability to implement tighter Net controls over content to deal with “unsolicited bulk communication.” Of course, some countries would include normal political discourse in that definition.

The United States must use its full political heft to protect the digital development scale from tipping in the wrong direction. If the notion of regulating technical and content issues related to the Internet are enshrined in international law, various governments may move ahead assertively to exercise their own domestic political powers to inhibit further Internet development and growth.

U.S. leadership will send a strong signal to dozens of developing countries that have not yet decided how best to promote the Internet for increased economic prosperity and social progress.

Regulation Can Create Multiple Adverse Effects

Conversely, if heavy-handed regulatory tools typically used to regulate telephone networks are enshrined by the ITU as applying to the Internet, governments will likely develop ways to apply them inappropriately across a range of areas that comprise the complex Internet ecosystem—networks, applications/content and devices. Such new restrictions, in turn, may create a domino effect, so that each nation only focuses on its own self-interest rather than on the larger global good at stake.

As with our other foreign policy challenges, the world is watching carefully how the US advances a durable sense of Net Vitality. The Plenipot ends on November 7, so the policy outcomes for Internet governance are moving ahead at the speed of the Internet. Hopefully, a clear mandate championed by the U.S. will emerge that favors a pathway to a truly Wide Open Internet for tomorrow.