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Remarks by Assistant Secretary Strickling at the PLI/FCBA Telecommunications Policy & Regulation Institute

December 14, 2012

Remarks by Lawrence E. Strickling
Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information
PLI/FCBA Telecommunications Policy & Regulation Institute
Washington, DC
December 14, 2012

--As prepared for delivery--

I want to thank the distinguished Deputy Administrator of NTIA, Anna Gomez, for yielding me the remainder of her time.  Rest assured she was under no pressure to do so.

I have just returned from Dubai and the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), which wrapped up today having failed to reach consensus on a revision of the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs).  At last count, the United States and over 50 other nations did not sign.  I wanted to take this opportunity to provide you some perspective on the events of the last two weeks at the conference and to discuss how the United States will move forward from this conference.

We went to Dubai with two commitments.  First, we were dedicated to the goal of a successful conference.  We were confident we could find common ground with the rest of the world to make any necessary updates to the ITRs within their application to traditional telecommunications services.  We also hoped the assembled nations would hold a productive discussion on the need to expand broadband capabilities throughout the world. 

But second, we were just as committed to ensuring that the free and open Internet not be ensnared in International Telecommunication Union (ITU) treaty obligations that could threaten the Internet with top-down government regulation at the expense of the multistakeholder processes that had served so well in encouraging economic growth and wealth creation of the Internet up to now.  This has been the steadfast, bipartisan policy of the United States throughout the Obama Administration.  Indeed, at the start of the conference in Dubai, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution, earlier passed by the Senate by unanimous consent, calling upon the Administration to continue to “promote a global Internet free from government control” and to “preserve and advance the successful multistakeholder model that governs the Internet today.”

So what happened to cause the failure of the conference?  The International Telecommunication Union had made two important promises in advance of the conference.  First, that it would operate by consensus and second, that Internet issues would not be appropriate for inclusion in the ITRs.  As it turned out, the ITU could not deliver on either of these promises. When around 40 percent of the participating countries do not sign the final documents of the conference, it is obvious that the ITU did not achieve the consensus it had promised.

I want to spend a minute on the process followed in Dubai.  I have spoken before about why the ITU is not and cannot be a true multistakeholder organization since only member states have a vote.  But the process followed in Dubai was startling as to how even member states were denied a meaningful opportunity to participate.  The final document presented on Wednesday as the chairman’s plan was shared with only twenty or so countries the previous day.  Through the plenary debate on Wednesday, countries that had not been given that privileged access were constantly being chastised by countries such as upsetting the “careful compromise” reached on Tuesday to which these other countries had not been a party.

There are some who would say that breaking up into smaller and smaller groups is the only way the ITU can get anything done.  But that’s exactly my point.  Just as some nations argued that the new network realities required an overhaul of the ITRs, I think it is clear beyond any doubt that these new realities and the proliferation of stakeholders that have emerged in the Internet economy demonstrates how unfit government-only institutions such as the ITU are for dealing with these issues.

What does this outcome mean for the United States and for the multinational companies that operate in countries around the world?  First off, I should note that it is not all that unusual for the ITRs not to apply to all countries.  These regulations date back to 1850 and the United States refused to sign them until 1973 so we have gotten along nicely in this country without these regulations before.  Of course, the existing 1988 regulations are still in force and the new provisions from this week do not take effect until January 2015 for those countries that sign the treaty so there will not be any immediate changes as a result of WCIT-12. 

What remains to be seen is whether these new provisions will have any impact outside of the United States on companies that operate in signatory countries.  We have plenty of time to assess the likelihood and extent of any impacts but I would suggest that to the extent the new language gives some nations the prod to make substantial changes in the way they deal with the Internet within their borders and in their international relations, those changes likely are not sustainable in the long run given how interconnected the world has become and the need for all nations and their economies to be integrated into this global interconnection for them to succeed.

Lastly, I want to address what those of us who believe in the free and open Internet and in multistakeholder governance of the Internet need to do as a result of the Dubai outcome. 

For this discussion, I divide the world into three categories.  First are those countries that embrace the multistakeholder process and are committed to a free and open Internet.  The good news is that this group is increasing in size.  Countries such as Kenya, Estonia and others are becoming beacons of Internet freedom for the rest of the world and the arguments in favor of freedom and openness are so strong and self-fulfilling that other countries will join on in the future. 

Second are those countries, largely authoritarian in nature that are threatened by a free and open Internet.  These countries, which are fairly small in number, watched the events in Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab countries with alarm and are not likely to move away from their preferred model of top-down control and censorship any time soon.

But that brings us to the remaining nations of the world.  These countries want the benefits of the Internet to grow their economies and create wealth for their citizens and are actively searching for the best ways to achieve those gains.  They have issues such as how to maintain sustainable investment in their infrastructures and are legitimately concerned about online problems of spam, child pornography and the like.  Interestingly, they are not committed to the idea that the ITU is the only place to bring these issues but it is the one global institution they know the best.  Based on my conversations with representatives of several of these countries last week, it is clear to me that many would be open to finding solutions to these problems through other means such as multistakeholder processes but they just are not comfortable enough with this form of governance to join in.

Our challenge, starting now, is to work hard to increase the number of countries that support the multistakeholder model.  The growth in support the last several years is a direct result of the efforts of like-minded stakeholders, including the United States, to demonstrate the strength of a free and open Internet:

  • Through the world’s commitment to the global Internet Governance Forum and the support of local and regional IGF’s throughout the world;
  • Through actions such as the adoption of Internet policymaking principles at the OECD last year; and
  • Through the world’s efforts the last four years to improve existing multistakeholder organizations such as ICANN, which coordinates the Internet domain name system.

All stakeholders need to redouble their efforts to better understand the needs and challenges countries around the world have with respect to the Internet.  We need to brainstorm with them to build their capacity to deal with these issues.  We need to strengthen existing opportunities, and perhaps develop new ones, for these countries to participate in multistakeholder processes to solve their problems.  We need to make a renewed and reinvigorated commitment to getting the necessary funding and staffing to allow the Internet Governance Forum to grow.

The divide reflected in the outcome of the WCIT today is not going to go away overnight.  But our arguments are powerful and if we apply ourselves to the task, we have every reason to expect the ultimate success of the global ideal of the free, open and multistakeholder Internet.

In closing, I want to acknowledge the hard work of the United States delegation to the conference, led by Ambassadors Terry Kramer and Phil Verveer and the incomparable Dick Beaird.  Mindel DeLaTorre and Kathy O’Brien provided leadership from the FCC and the NTIA team of Fiona Alexander, Vernita Harris, Ashley Heineman, and Chris Hemmerlein performed superbly.  More than one hundred U.S. government officials and representatives from industry and civil society have worked incredibly hard over the last several months to prepare for this conference and while they are not here to receive your recognition, I would ask all of you to join me in a round of applause for their efforts.  Thank you.