November 17, 2014 - 2:33 pm
By Michael O'Rielly | Commissioner

Last month, I was honored to join FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler as part of the U.S. delegation to the 2014 International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) Plenipotentiary Conference (Plenipot) held in Busan, South Korea.  Since the conference recently concluded, it seems the appropriate time to share my thoughts about this experience.  Before doing so, however, I must express my deep appreciation to the head of the delegation, U.S. Ambassador Daniel Sepulveda of the Department of State, the FCC staff, the members of the U.S. delegation, and all dignitaries with whom I was able to meet, including the newly-elected Secretary-General of the ITU, Mr. Houlin Zhao of China, and Deputy Secretary-General, Mr. Malcom Johnson of the United Kingdom. 

As a member of the delegation, I attended the official plenary meetings of the conference, which included the elections for various ITU positions and discussions of various resolutions, and joined U.S.-led bilateral meetings with representatives of countries present at the Plenipot, including Germany and Chile.  I attended meetings with a subset of our delegation to discuss U.S. positions on specific issues (e.g., cybersecurity and Internet governance).  In addition, I participated in a number of FCC-led bilateral meetings with officials from the regulatory agencies of other countries, including Pakistan, Lebanon, Ghana, Australia and Guinea-Bissau.  These meetings put into perspective the high standing that the FCC has internationally, and I was able to share the Commission’s pro-market approach to spectrum auctions, unlicensed spectrum, broadband deployment, and many other issues. 

Reports indicate that the 2014 Plenipot was relatively successful in staving off ill-timed or questionable policy proposals, and much credit goes to the U.S. delegation for their commitment and dedication.  Based on my short time in Busan and now reviewing the end product, here are my key takeaways:

The Internet Continues to Threaten the Status Quo

At the heart of the issues debated at the 2014 Plenipot was the continued development of the Internet and its remarkable, disruptive capabilities.  There was noticeable policy tension between the desire to expand the Internet to all and the impact of the Internet on global economic and political practices.  While the countries of the world embrace the benefits that the Internet brings to society and mankind, some are troubled by other changes it can bring. 

The concerns some countries have about the Internet are quite strong.  In general, they can be put into one of two categories: loss of control and reduction of revenues.  The decentralized and global nature of the Internet reduces the ability of a government to control the information and experiences of its citizens.  In other words, countries that restrict freedom could be the most affected by it.  Moreover, the Internet is quickly supplanting the traditional telephone as the main source of communications traffic.  For some countries that rely on telephone revenues, their solution seems to be based on imposing new fees of some sort on the Internet.  Many of the proposals on Internet issues put forth at the Plenipot fit into one of these two problematic rationalizations.

Given the benefits of an informed society, the international community would be wise to continue to embrace the Internet rather than trying to limit its access and reach.  Additionally, a more forward-thinking approach is that government fees and regulations are deterrents to users communicating and optimizing the Internet, and thus, should be opposed.

The Structure of International Forums Needs Review

While I appreciate the history of the ITU and its work, the ITU’s structure—like that of the U.N.—provides each country an equal say in matters before it.  That means some member countries, relying on bad information, advocate the fusion of existing policies or practices with the complexities inherent in the operations, functionality and architecture of the Internet, which can lead to unintended consequences.  This also enables those countries that have questionable ulterior motives to push proposals that undermine the longstanding principles embedded in the Internet.  The U.S. delegation, which included a number of Internet-centric companies, was forced to not only defend the Internet from harmful policies but also explain how implementing these policies could undermine the foundation of the Internet.

As I left Busan, it appeared that the role of the ITU in some people’s minds was on the way to shifting from the preeminent forum for public telecommunications to what our Korean hosts lauded as “the preeminent intergovernmental Internet forum.”  The remit of the ITU continues to be a core discussion point at every global ITU conference, as some countries want to expand the ITU's reach to include Internet governance and content.  These continued attempts need careful consideration, including whether and how best to obtain agreement prior to the start of any international forum discussing Internet matters, particularly those that have international treaty implications, to preclude issues that are outside of the organization’s purview or that may violate certain factors appropriate for international Internet negotiations, conventions, or conferences.  Whether this is done via further establishing official U.S. policy along these lines or whether funding for such organizations needs to be examined closely beforehand would seem to be something for Congress to determine, but it may be a necessary conversation to have.  Alternatively, perhaps the U.S. should focus on steering certain international discussions to other non-treaty based forums.

Need to Harmonize U.S. Domestic Positions with International Positions

The U.S. positions on Internet issues facing the Plenipot were rather refreshing.  It focused on reaffirming our commitment to the free market and private sector: the guiding principles of the Internet.  We rejected greater involvement by governments and railed against the desire by some to impose new fees (not unlike access charges) on Internet traffic.  We opposed efforts to impose Internet traffic tracking, knowing that this was designed to subvert individuals’ freedom.  We fought against efforts to inject the ITU into Internet content and applications.  And we pushed the international community to keep the ITU’s role over the Internet limited.  Basically, our approach was one of foiling efforts to inject a greater government role in Internet governance, operations or architecture.  Amen!   

The only problem is that these great stances are not the same ones being espoused by our government within our own borders, particularly at the FCC.  In fact, many within the United States government advocate for policies that would run directly afoul of our international message.  Think of the domestic debate over net neutrality in which some want to impose common carriage requirements on broadband providers and the desire to regulate the Internet peering marketplace. This is extremely problematic for a number of reasons, not the least is the lost credibility our positions will have in future international forums.  Being labelled hypocrites is a real likelihood if the U.S. continues to favor one policy at home and another abroad.  Worse yet, is the possibility that such regulatory systems and taxing policies would be replicated internationally.

Accordingly, the proper course of action is to examine the worthiness of our international positions and reshape domestic policy to reflect these enlightened views.  By synchronizing our positions and embracing those that have allowed the commercial Internet to flourish over the last three decades, we would be rejecting the flawed and misguided arguments that we oppose internationally, allowing us to retain the intellectually defensible high ground.  It would also reinvigorate our Internet entrepreneurs and innovators by allowing them to focus on technology rather than Washington, D.C. bureaucrats.