Digital rights groups ask ITU to stay out of net neutrality debate

The U.N. agency should resist calls to regulation international termination fees for Web traffic, the groups say

The International Telecommunication Union should resist calls to adopt rules allowing countries to charge fees for Internet traffic coming from outside their borders, said 21 digital rights groups from 11 countries.

If the ITU moves to allow telecom-style termination fees for Web traffic, the United Nations agency could damage Internet openness and threaten net neutrality, said Danielle Kehlm, a policy analyst at the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute. The institute is one of the groups signing a set of recommendations to the ITU as it hosts its 2014 Plenipotentiary Conference in South Korea through Nov. 7.

Some developing nations pushed for global standards allowing Internet termination fees -- charges for carrying traffic from outside the country to end customers -- in an effort to raise money for broadband deployment, at the ITU's 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). The issue is expected to come up again at this year's ITU conference, Kehlm said.

The ITU should focus on Internet access and deployment issues, where it has U.N. mandates, instead of public policy issues, Kehlm said. "Internet public policy should not be something the ITU is determining," she said.

Under the heading of "International connection and net neutrality," the recommendations from the digital rights groups suggest other ways to pay for broadband deployment. The digital rights groups share concerns about the cost of deployment, the document said.

"The high cost of international connectivity is being dealt with through a range of measures, including competition, enabling environments and investment, increased traffic demand and reduced costs," as well as work being done at the ITU to provide incentives for Internet investment, the document said.

Meanwhile, there's disagreement among countries about interconnection of Internet traffic and termination fees, the document noted. Interconnection "remains an unsettled issue with no broadly accepted set of standards to govern international settlement," the document said. "Currently, individual countries have the authority to regulate IP interconnection rates as needed, and this remains the optimal approach in such a dynamic and evolving market."

Taking into account ongoing concerns about the transparency of the ITU's decision-making process, the agency should stay out of major policy debates, said Shiva Stella, communications manager at Public Knowledge (PK), one of the groups signing onto the recommendations.

"Non-democratic states should not be allowed to make Internet policy behind closed doors, where public interest groups, academics and representatives of the people can not impact the ITU's decision-making process or have access to the ITU's documents to share with the public," she said by email. "PK prefers for net neutrality decisions impacting the United States to occur at the Federal Communications Commission, where U.S. citizens have the opportunity to both access the information being evaluated and make their opinions heard."

Concerns about cybersecurity also came up during WCIT, with some nations pushing for the ITU to adopt resolutions that would allow them to take new steps to target Internet users as a way to combat cyberthreats. Critics of those proposals, including the U.S. government, dismissed them as vague attempts to expand censorship.

The digital rights groups, in their recommendations, said attempts at the ITU meeting to develop an international cybersecurity treaty would be "premature." Among ITU member nations, there's a "lack of consensus on key issues," the document said, including a definition of the proper use of force in cyberspace.

Any cybersecurity discussions "should be grounded in human rights principles," the groups wrote.

Anticipating discussion at the ITU conference on counterfeit electronic devices, the groups also said the agency should not take steps toward prohibiting counterfeit devices from connecting to the Internet. Trade controls can better address issues with counterfeiting, they said.

Denying service to users "would be an extremely disproportionate response to the relatively minor network irregularities that may be caused by counterfeit devices," the groups wrote. "Furthermore, it will mostly affect the poorest people, since counterfeit devices are attractive for this group because of their competitive pricing."

An ITU spokeswoman wasn't immediately available to comment on the recommendations.

Among the other groups signing the recommendations were the Center for Democracy and Technology, Movimento Mega, Global Partners Digital and the World Wide Web Foundation.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags governmentinternetCenter for Democracy and TechnologyInternational Telecommunication UnionNew America FoundationPublic KnowledgeWorld Wide Web FoundationGlobal Partners DigitalShiva StellaMovimento MegaDanielle Kehlm

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