Eric Johnson

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Google, Government Reps Warn Against Internet Regulation Summit

If you’ve ever found yourself at a panel of academics, you know the drill: Really smart people, differing viewpoints, respectful bickering, free sandwiches, aaaand scene.

That said, at a panel yesterday on the campus of Stanford University’s Law School, the disagreements were actually few and far between.

Three panelists — U.S. Ambassador David Gross, Google policy counsel Patrick Ryan and former Assistant Secretary of Commerce Larry Irving — presented a surprisingly unified argument: An upcoming United Nations conference on Internet regulation is dangerous.

Really, really dangerous. At least for those who like the Internet as-is.

“Is This the End of the Internet?” delved into the World Conference on International Telecommunications, or WCIT, a U.N.-affiliated policy summit starting next week in Dubai. The government representatives in attendance will debate and vote on amendments to a 24-year-old telecom regulations treaty.

Some — but not all — of the proposed amendments could upend the historically laissez-faire regulation of the Internet. This anti-WCIT advocacy video sums up opponents’ nightmare scenario well:

The original 1988 treaty was “a tremendous success for reasons that no one anticipated,” Gross told the Stanford audience. At the time, the focus was still on telephony, which was still state-owned and -run in most countries, although not the U.S.

The liberalizing treaty’s flexibility over commercial relationships, he said, drove international growth and laid the groundwork for today’s widespread global mobile access.

But now, Irving chimed in, “fear is a great driver, and people like to regulate what they fear.” Governments that will be in attendance at the closed-door WCIT summit — including some that currently censor Internet traffic within their own borders — have proposed amendments to the treaty that could make it easier to monitor and control how everyone uses the Web.

In response to this perceived threat, Google launched an anti-regulation campaign online just over a week ago. And it did so under “Take Action,” the same corporate policy banner used to successfully protest the anti-piracy bills SOPA and PIPA earlier this year.

At first, Google’s Ryan said, he didn’t know why the ITU, the U.N. sub-organization behind WCIT, isn’t more transparent in its efforts. Gross said that past transparency efforts by ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré had been shot down by member governments.

The reason? According to Irving, while Americans generally think of the Internet in positive terms, the people in power in a handful of other countries equate the Web with a loss of control and cultural disruption.

In other words, they see problems like spam and privacy as exempt from public discussion.

Compounding the problem, each country gets one, and only one, vote at WCIT, no matter their differences in Internet usage or how many delegates they send.

For all intents and purposes in the ITU, the U.S. and its 115 delegates (so numbered according to this document obtained by anonymous-leaking Web site WCITleaks) are on a level playing field with China’s 31, Russia’s 45 and Libya’s two.

Nevertheless, Gross said, WCIT 2012 “may be historic,” because it will test the “global political power of the Internet.”

The big question is whether bottom-up efforts from WCIT’s adversaries, both in the crowd online and in the private sector, can put any sort of pressure on the top-down decision-makers.

Average people understand the benefits of the Internet, Irving added, and “regulating the Internet in a stupid way can take a lot of those benefits away, especially for those at the ‘bottom of the pyramid.'”

The danger, Irving added, arises from the fact that so few governments really understand the digital medium. The last time the U.N. looked at the Internet in a major way, at a 2005 summit, most people had never heard of YouTube, Facebook or smartphones, he pointed out.

In other words, it’s safer to avoid regulation of the Internet, because governments will never be able to outpace the speed of evolving technology.

“We’re not regulatory Usain Bolts,” he said.

Via Google’s “Take Action” site, this video goes deeper into what the ITU has done right in the past, and what’s going on now:

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