Representatives from more than 190 countries are convening in Dubai to discuss the treaty regulating global telecommunications. It hasn't been updated since 1988, when the Internet was in its infancy. There is fear that countries known to censor or restrict Internet access will push for global governance that could hamper speech and innovation. Renee Montagne discusses the issues with Ambassador Philip Verveer, who coordinates U.S. policy on global communications.
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Representatives from over 190 countries, as well as Internet companies and activist groups, have convened in Dubai to discuss the treaty regulating global telecommunications. It was last amended in 1988, at a time when the Internet barely existed. Huge issues are at stake, most prominently who controls the Internet. To break this down for us, we turn to Philip Verveer. He's deputy assistant secretary of state, who's responsible for coordinating policy on global communications.
PHILIP VERVEER: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Now, even as the Internet has become a dominant mode of international communication, it has never been regulated. And that is at the heart of what much of the attention is going to at this conference - a fear that this U.N. body that regulates other forms of communication is going to try and annex the Internet, if you will.
VERVEER: Well, yes, there is a lot of anxiety about that. Some of it perhaps excessive. There are some countries that have aspirations for bringing the Internet under intergovernmental control. This is true of the Russian Federation. It's true of China. But we think that this would be very damaging to the efficiency of the Internet, to its organic growth, to the free flow of information over the Internet. So it's something that we in the United States are very much opposed to.
MONTAGNE: Yes. You mentioned Russia and China .These are countries that have a history of trying to censor the Internet, control traffic on it. How strongly is the U.S. going to come out against this proposal?
VERVEER: Well, the United States isn't going to agree to anything that we believe would lead to content controls over the Internet. That is something that's utterly inconsistent with our First Amendment values. And I think it's very likely that the vast majority of countries in the world are going to agree with us on that.
MONTAGNE: You know, it does seem like the most important issue really for the countries at this conference is how best to pay to keep the Internet going. France, for instance, has a lot of competition among those who offer Internet service, therefore it's less lucrative for the providers. So they want to, say, charge Google a fee. Google doesn't want to pay a fee. Is that the sort of thing you're trying to wrestle with at this conference?
VERVEER: Yes. Certain countries would like to get the kinds of payments that they used to get in the mid-'80s, let's say, from international telecommunications services, where there were significant...
MONTAGNE: Meaning telephones. They'd like to be able to do what they had a monopoly on doing, which is charge you for making a phone call out to a faraway place.
VERVEER: That's right. We're very sympathetic to the idea that there are places in the world that need to have further development of their communications networks. But we think that there are vastly better ways to do it than to try to work out some sort of a compulsory transfer scheme.
MONTAGNE: What do you think is the key issue that you will be dealing with here?
VERVEER: Well, I think the key issue is to be sure that there is nothing in these international telecommunications regulations that in some way would contribute to the assertion of intergovernmental control over the Internet.
But it's important to understand this is the discussion that is going to go on and on and on for the foreseeable future and probably well beyond the foreseeable future. These kinds of issues are going to be with us for a very long time, and there are going to be international meetings that will take these things up over and over and over again. So this is a very important proposition, but it's only one in a whole string of meetings that will be looking at these kinds of issues.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
VERVEER: OK. It's a pleasure.
MONTAGNE: Deputy assistant secretary of state Philip Verveer is in charge of coordinating policy on global communications. He's at the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai which begins today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.