Chinese Official to Head UN Agency Where Battle for Internet Control Is Underway

By Patrick Goodenough | October 24, 2014 | 4:20am EDT

Delegates at the International Telecommunication Union’s plenipotentiary conference in Busan, South Korea. (Photo: ITU/Flickr)

Shortly after being elected secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) at a high-level meeting in South Korea Thursday, Zhao Houlin told Seoul’s official news agency that while everyone supports the idea of freedom of speech, what constitutes censorship is open to differing interpretations.

“We [at the ITU] don’t have a common interpretation of what censorship means,” the Yonhap agency quoted Zhao as saying. “A country can ask people not to watch pornography, and some consider this as also kind of censorship. We have not got a common definition.”

Asked about China’s rigidly-enforced censorship of politically sensitive material, Zhao replied, “Some kind of censorship may not be strange to other countries.”

China is infamous for curbing access to online material it deems subversive, using sophisticated technology both to block it and to track down and ultimately punish cyber dissidents.

Zhao, the ITU’s deputy secretary-general since 2006, was the only candidate nominated for the top post, and received 152 votes from the 156 countries present and voting at the conference. In his acceptance speech, he thanked “all Chinese friends who have worked hard to promote my candidature over the last two years.”

The newly elected International Telecommunication Union chief, Zhao Houlin of China, speaks to media in Busan, South Korea on Thursday, October 23, 2014. (Photo: ITU/Flickr)

For the next four years, Zhao will head an agency which repressive regimes like China, Russia, Cuba and Iran have sought to use to promote international – that is, U.N. – control over the Internet, an effort opposed by liberal democracies.

The battle played out at an ITU-organized information summit in Tunisia in 2005, and again at the ITU-convened World Conference of International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai in 2012.

The Dubai event ended with countries deeply divided over a raft of proposals to revise a longstanding binding global telecommunications treaty, some of which critics said would stifle Internet innovation and growth, and open the door to repressive measures by governments opposed to online free speech.

In the end the U.S., Europeans and other mostly Western democracies refused to sign the new treaty agreement.

Under the current, so-called “multi-stakeholder model,” a not-for-profit body called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has since the late 1990s been responsible for overseeing Web domains and assigning  protocol addresses. The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has oversight of ICANN.

Supporters say the system has worked, and has been largely free of U.S. government interference. But the likes of China and Russia are opposed to what they view as unacceptable U.S. control.

Last March, the Obama administration announced that when NTIA’s contract expires in Sept. 2015 it plans to relinquish its oversight of ICANN, opening the way for proposals for a new stewardship mechanism which the administration stipulated must “maintain the openness of the Internet.”

The Commerce Department sought to allay concerns that this would lead to U.N. control, with assistant secretary Lawrence Strickling telling reporters, “I want to make it clear that we will not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA’s role with a government-led or intergovernmental solution.”

‘Under the auspices of U.N. institutions’

Autocratic governments are continuing to push back, and the current three-week ITU policy-making conference in the South Korean city of Busan is the latest arena.

In a policy statement delivered there (translation provided by the Heritage Foundation), Russian delegate Nikolay Nikiforov said Moscow believes rules governing information and communication technologies “should be developed under the auspices of U.N. institutions.”

“They should be based on adherence to the principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of states and their equal rights in the management of the Internet, the sovereign right of states to control the Internet in the national information space …”

In the U.S. policy statement in Busan, coordinator for international communications and information policy Daniel Sepulveda, voiced hope that the conference would move ahead in a spirit of consensus, but also cautioned against any efforts to stifle free expression or innovation online.

“This specialized agency of the United Nations exists to encourage and enable the deployment of telecommunications over air and wire and to ensure that those networks are interoperable and secure,” he said.

“We are not here to dictate or control how people use that connectivity to express themselves, organize, or create and operate the services that are enriching the lives of the 2.7 billion people connected to the Internet today.”

In an article last month Sepulveda and two other State Department officials involved in cyber and human rights policy predicted that Internet governance would arise in Busan.

“There are some actors who want to radically change the existing multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance by centralizing control over the Internet under an intergovernmental organization, effectively giving governments sole authority over the choices that affect the Internet’s design and operation,” wrote Sepulveda, Christopher Painter and Scott Busby.

They gave three reasons to oppose this:

--The Internet’s dynamism would be diminished, due to slow decision-making processes in intergovernmental institutions;

--Stakeholders in civil society, academia and industry would be left out of Internet policymaking; and

--“Intergovernmental controls would inevitably encourage repressive regimes to attempt to introduce censorship or content controls.”

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