The U.S. government should push for the United Nations' International Telecommunication Union to be dismantled in addition to playing defense against proposals for restrictive Internet regulations at an upcoming telecom conference, a former White House official said.
The ITU has outlived its purpose of coordinating international telecom regulations as the world's communications networks move to Internet Protocol, said Andrew McLaughlin, an entrepreneur-in-residence at startup funding firm Betaworks and former deputy CTO in U.S. President Barack Obama's administration. The ITU is set up to advocate for government intervention into communications networks, at the expense of users, and the organization lacks transparency, McLaughlin said Thursday at a Future Tense discussion of Internet governance.
McLaughlin's criticism of the ITU came as the organization gets ready to host the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), a treaty-writing conference to set international telecom regulations. WCIT begins Monday in Dubai.
The U.S. delegation to WCIT is being "entirely too cautious and too timid" about the future of the ITU, McLaughlin said. "We should set a significantly bolder and more audacious goal. It is time to set, as United States policy, the objective of dismantling the International Telecommunication Union."
The ITU's structure, giving all countries one vote on some issues, allows tiny countries to have as big a voice on telecom and Internet issues as large countries such as the U.S. and China, McLaughlin added. And repressive regimes use the ITU and will use WCIT to push for censorship and repression on the Internet, he said.
"The ITU is the chosen vehicle for regimes for whom the free and open Internet is seen as an existential threat," he said.
The organization also fosters cozy relationships between regulators and large telecoms, he said. "The past and future role of the ITU has traditionally been to foster corruption, monopoly, to facilitate surveillance and censorship," he said.
Several proposals before WCIT are "horror shows" that would allow countries to conduct heavy surveillance on Internet users, McLaughlin added.
An ITU spokeswoman called McLaughlin's proposal "extreme."
McLaughlin's criticisms are off base, added Richard Hill, counsellor to the ITU. The ITU is not a top-down organization because "nothing happens at ITU unless there are inputs from the membership," he said by email. "It's one of the most bottom-up organizations that I've been involved with, and I've been around professionally since 1970."
Hill also disputed that the ITU helps repressive regimes. "I don't know of any agreed ITU output that has any repressive effect," he said. "Maybe somebody could point one out to me."
Terry Kramer, head of the U.S. delegation to WCIT, said he doesn't agree with McLauglin. The ITU performs several valuable functions, including helping telecom and Internet services grow in developing countries, he said.
"I don't think per se the ITU is the problem," he said. "The more fundamental issue is, why are some of the nations putting out the [WCIT] proposals they are?"
The problem with dismantling the ITU is that many nations see other governance organizations, such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), as too closely tied to the U.S. government, said Milton Mueller, a professor at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies and an author of books on Internet governance.
Other countries may see U.S. opposition to the ITU as driven by a loss of influence that the government and large U.S. companies have over other Internet bodies, he said.
Alternate organizations such as ICANN face similar criticisms about transparency and centralized decision-making, Mueller said.
In addition, criticisms of surveillance and repression from the U.S. ring hollow when government agencies there engage in similar practices, he said. Concerns about surveillance is a "strange charge to come from in the land of warrantless wiretaps," Mueller said. "Who do we really fear, in terms of communications surveillance, more, the ITU ... or the FBI?"
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 e-mail address is email@example.com.