The co-founder of AOL and longtime resident of the Washington region shares his vision for the future of tech.
Representatives from 193 governments are meeting in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, this week to review a treaty that some worry could impose new restrictions on the Internet. Nations like Russia, China and Iran don’t like the Internet’s openness and think the United States has too much control over its operations. Kojo explores concerns about censorship, fees and who should set Internet policy.
- Emma Llansó Policy Counsel, Center for Democracy and Technology
- Craig Timberg National Technology Reporter, The Washington Post
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. The open and uncensored nature of the internet is something Americans take for granted, but not everyone around the world think that's a good idea. Some governments would like to see regulation or oversight of the internet as a whole and want to exert control themselves over internet communication inside their borders. The threat of internet censorship is dominating an international conference in Dubai this week where representatives from nearly 200 countries are gathered to update a treaty on international phone calling standards.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut the real debate is over whether the internet should be treated and regulated more like the phone companies and what that would mean for free speech around the world. Joining me to talk about who governs the internet and who is pushing for change is Craig Timberg. He is national technology reporter with the Washington Post and author of the book "Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the Aids Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It." Craig, good to see you again.
MR. CRAIG TIMBERGThank you, good to be here.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Emma Llanso, policy counselor with the Center for Democracy and Technology. Emma Llanso, thank you for joining us.
MS. EMMA LLANSONice to be here.
NNAMDIEmma, bring us up to speed on the conference in Dubai that wraps up on Friday. Its official purpose is supposedly to update a 1988 treaty dealing with protocols for international phone calls. Why is the biggest debate that's apparently taking place there over the internet?
LLANSOThat's a good question. So one of the things that we're seeing as all these governments get together to debate this treaty is governments looking at sort of the future of telecommunications. And what role entities like the ITU, which is a UN organization that's run by and the agenda set by governments, what role that kind of institution should have in internet governments, which currently happens in a very decentralized kind of process where it's not one single global body kind of calling the shots.
NNAMDICraig, how does this debate pit the United States and its western allies against other countries like Russia, China and some of the Arab nations which think the U.S. has too much control, if you will, over the internet?
TIMBERGI think one of the first points to make is just how profoundly destabilizing the internet has been worldwide in terms of winners and losers and the flow of information. And so, you know, there are potentially two very big issues that governments could talk about when they get together. One is really the flow of information and censorship. The other is money, right. I mean, it's worth remembering that there was a time when we always used to pay a lot of money to talk to one another on the phone, right. If we called back and forth there was a huge amount of revenues just flowing into coffers of these companies that controlled the phone lines and the governments that taxed them.
TIMBERGAnd so the internet's really taken all that away. I mean -- and so part of what's going on is governments are trying to re-exert some control over communication which they used to have for an awful long time and they made a lot of money off it. And so I'm not sure that in the end what we're seeing in Dubai is going to be all that consequential of a change. But the issues are very real and profound and they aren't going to go away.
NNAMDIEmma, Russia is apparently leading the group of countries that wants tighter governance of the internet. What is Russia proposing, and those other countries, and how would it change the status quo?
LLANSOSo we're seeing in kind of a cycle throughout the conference Russia and a group of countries including the UAE and China continuing to put forth proposals that would give governments a much bigger role in regulating the internet and in directing how internet policy gets made, and raising issues going right into the kinds of cost questions of what networks have to pay to send content.
LLANSOThere's a big concern that in developing countries basically big U.S. and western-based content companies are sending lots of traffic into these areas. And they're -- but they're not paying for the network and infrastructure layout and rollout that is necessary to support that kind of content. But these type of proposals that are lumped into this sending party pays model really raise a lot of questions. They would change the way kind of information flows across the network currently, the way that networks interconnect currently, which happens largely on a settlement free basis.
LLANSOAnd seeing these proposals keep coming up, I mean, it's pretty clear that Russia and some of these other countries they want to find a way to be charging the big content companies for internet traffic. And they're pushing it every opportunity they have to do that.
NNAMDIWhen we talk about the big content companies, Craig, we're talking about companies operating a country in which the internet infrastructure grew out of the U.S. government and the biggest internet companies like Google and Facebook, etcetera are based here. So when you talk about money people on the other sides of this argument from the U.S. seem to feel that well, these people developed these things in the U.S. so that's fine. But now there's all of this traffic coming into our countries and we're not getting any compensation for it.
TIMBERGYeah, I have to say I'm -- as you know, I was a foreign correspondent in Africa for years and so I kind of sort of understand where these countries may be coming from. And not only did the internet grow out of a U.S. government project and, you know, the URL names are managed by a nonprofit group in southern California in a contract with the Commerce Department, but literally almost every big company you can think of, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, Skype now, I mean, it has...
NNAMDI...money's all going in one direction.
TIMBERGYeah, it's kind of an American owned and operated machine in some crucial ways. And so you can understand why other governments and countries would want to have more say in what's going on. I mean, the rub in this, of course, is that just because the Russian government would like to have more say in what's going on, doesn't mean that that's necessarily going to be good for the Russian people, right?
TIMBERGI mean, there is a democratic element to the way these debates play out, and, you know, if you're an ordinary Russian, you probably want to be able to get on Google for free. You probably want to connect with your friends on Facebook for free. If you're a Kenyan, if you're, you know, if you're Malaysian. So I think that there's been a lot of criticism of this conference that it's sort of a-- it's a council of governments that's don't reliably represent their people, and I have to say, I kind of -- I see their point as well.
TIMBERGAs much as there may be a backlash against the sort of fundamentally American nature of the Internet infrastructure, I'm not sure that we would -- that it's -- the best outcome is to cede that to a bunch of other governments that in some cases are despotic or nearly so.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join this conversation. How would you feel about an international body, so to speak, taking over governance of the Internet. How should the U.S. respond to other countries that say we have too much control over the Internet? 800-433-8850. Emma Llanso, what would be the danger in adopting a treaty-style framework to govern the Internet?
LLANSOI think what we're seeing in this conference is that a treaty-style framework for Internet governance is not going to work. We've had days of conversation at the conference today. They are at, you know, really reaching the wire in terms of when they can make decisions to have this all wrap up by Friday, and key decisions still have not been made, because governments cannot agree on certain key provisions about defining the scope of the treaty or fundamental issues like this interconnection issue, whether something like security should be involved.
LLANSOTreaty instruments, especially at this particular treaty, you know, it's written in very high-level language, and the kinds of issues that are coming up, questions about funding development, questions about cyber security, are very important questions, but they deserve real answers developed in a specific and targeted way in appropriate venues. And I just don't think that this treaty and this conference is that venue.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Do you think Google or Facebook should have to pay a fee to deliver content to other countries? Do you think if they were forced to do that they'd just drop their service in those places, or that they might still continue to find it profitable to do so? 800-433-8850. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on the Internet and governance of the Internet. You can also send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about governing the Internet. We're talking with Craig Timberg, national technology reporter with the Washington Post, and author of the book "Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic, and How the World Can Finally Overcome It." He joins us in studio, along with Emma Llanso, policy counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology.
NNAMDIGoing into the break, I requested calls by talking about paying a fee to deliver content to other countries. That's a part of the economic argument, and there's the democracy argument. But allow me for a minute to go back to the economic argument. In the telephone world, the phone company placing an overseas call pays a small connection fee to the phone company. In the receiving country, some people want the Internet to adopt that model charging companies like Google or Facebook a fee to connect with users in other countries.
NNAMDIOf course, the content providers, many here in the United States are adamantly opposed. How do you think a fee system would affect access to the Internet around the world? First you, Emma.
LLANSOSure. So I think if you think about making an international telephone company -- or telephone call, if I make a call to somebody in India, I'm going to be paying the long distance fee for that call. If somebody in India is making a request to a Google server in Mountain View for a YouTube Video, the amount of traffic they send for that request is very small, but the amount of traffic that the video is coming back to them is very large.
LLANSOSo you at first have this disparity of the person initiating the communication is not necessarily the one who will be facing the cost for it. That means your incentives have changed. You get into the position where it's the sender of the content who's going to have to be thinking is it really worth it to me? Is it worth it to my bottom line to pay to send this video to this person who's requested it from this other country.
NNAMDIAnd your feeling, Craig, about how the fee system would affect access to the Internet around the world?
TIMBERGIt's a very good question. I suspect we don't really know what the answer would be. It seems like an unlikely outcome, but if there was an actual fee structure, presumably people who had, you know, who were in less wealthy markets could potentially be shut out, right? So in the United States or in Germany, whatever, if there is some small fee that gets built into your cable bill or whatever, it probably could be managed.
TIMBERGBut if you're, you know, if you're a Kenyan college student in some cyber café in Nairobi and you want to, you know, download a book to read, that potentially becomes prohibitive. And if the governments are individually making the decisions about how much to charge, you know, they could be bad actors in this equation. But also, if you're the content delivery company, you're Google, Facebook, whatever, or the Library of Congress for that matter, you know, why would you keep up service in a place where you're costs are very high and your profit is not high?
TIMBERGSo I think the reality in that kind of scenario is that less affluent markets would -- could lose access and, you know, part of the reason why it probably won't happen.
LLANSOAnd I think it's also important to remember that it's not just going to be the big companies that end up having to face these charges. These kind of charges would end up applying across the board, and so could also create a new barrier to entry for innovative online services and new content developers who face this cost of having to send traffic to different markets as something else they have to worry about when they're just trying to get a startup off the ground.
NNAMDISo much for the economic, now for the democratic if you will. Last month the Internet went dark in Syria when officials apparently decided to shut down access to news about the country's internal conflict. The same thing happened earlier in Libya, in Egypt. How hard is it to cut off a country's Internet access, and what are the concerns about possible government censorship of the Internet? It's not hard to do right now, is it?
TIMBERGIt's darn easy, actually. It looks like the Syrians effectively flipped a switch, and, you know, the fact is the governments have an awful lot of power over the Internet already. They control the central flow of information. You can -- I mean, governments around the world shut out in some cases YouTube when that "Innocence of Muslims" video was coming over it. So governments already have quite a bit of range to block people's access.
TIMBERGYou know, China famously has a great firewall that, you know, has this amazing censorship mechanism. So I for one don't think that governments need an awful lot more tools at their disposal to keep people from getting content.
NNAMDINevertheless, in this conference Russia has a proposal about that Emma.
LLANSOYes. One of the proposals that Russia was making before the conference started was basically adding something to this treaty that would say, you know, we acknowledge that it's the member state's sovereign right to disconnect users from the Internet for national security purposes or words to that effect. And, you know, this goes...
NNAMDIWhat would that do that doesn't already exist?
LLANSOThat's a great question. And I think a key thing to remember with, you know, talking about this treaty is that it's not that necessarily something in this treaty is going to change a person's Internet experience in a particular country immediately. It more -- treaties like this, represent kind of global consensus about the right way to do this kind of governing, and the right kinds of approaches and procedures to take.
LLANSOAnd it would be harmful to include in that treaty some kind of acknowledgment, that yes, nations, you might want to turn off the Internet for your citizens one day, and we accept that as kind of a baseline. We don't accept that as a baseline when Syria's -- when the Syrian government turned off the Internet, there was a lot of outcry and there were people raising the human rights concerns and the, you know, questioning their justification for what they were doing and why they were doing that.
LLANSOAnd it's important to be able to do that and to point to international treaties like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and to say that no, actually the global standard is that governments must protect their citizen's access to information and not have a competing consensus that well, sometimes this is all right.
TIMBERGOne of the most fascinating parts of the Syrian Internet shutoff is how quickly they turned it back on, right? And it, you know, I wrote a story about this at the time, and one of the people I was talking to said, you know, when they shut off the Internet for the Egyptians, and the -- you know, when Hosni Mubarak was still president, you know, Egyptians who were following this on Facebook or Twitter had to leave their homes to get information in other ways, and that actually precipitated that, you know, the...
TIMBERG...sort of physical demonstration. And in Syria, you know, it wasn't just the rebels who were using the Internet to keep on stuff, it was, you know, the parts of the middle and upper classes that were aligned with the government. So when you -- for me, it just -- it reveals just how incredibly powerful the Internet has become in everybody's lives in just a matter of a few years, where in a way, shutting off the Internet is more dangerous than having it on if you're a despotic regime.
NNAMDIAllow me to go to the telephones where Vida in Gaithersburg, Md. awaits us. Vida, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
VIDAYeah. I wanted to get back to the idea of having an international body in charge of the Internet rather than the United States, and I think it'd be a terrible idea. International bodies tend to get perverted as it were by special, you know, by despotic countries for example, and by countries with their own agendas. I think even though the U.S. -- it may bother people that the U.S. is in charge of the Internet, I think that's about the best we can do frankly.
NNAMDICare to comment on that, Emma?
LLANSOSure. Well, one, to push back a little bit on the characterization that the U.S. is just in charge of the Internet. I mean, the U.S. definitely has had historically, and continues to have a very big influence in how Internet policy and Internet governance goes on. But as the Internet becomes increasingly important to nations around the worlds to their political sphere, to their economic sphere, we're going to see much more interest from many countries in -- at the very least regulating at a national level.
LLANSOAnd I think the key is to look at what was the system that allowed the Internet to scale up into this global network from a, you know, small research network that started in the U.S. decades ago? And that system is this decentralized and open and multi stakeholder model. That's a buzz word that basically means decisions about how the Internet should run at the technical level and at the policy level need to involved consultation with not just governments but technical experts, academics, human rights advocates, the industry who's the ones out there, you know, putting the wires down and putting the equipment in place to figure out from all of these perspectives, taking all of that different expertise and different ways of looking at things and identifying problems to figure out what real and sustainable solutions are going to be.
LLANSOAnd that's the kind of think that I think we should be looking for coming out of this conference. It's not that, okay, there's no international regulatory body, let's continue with the status quo, but it's figuring out how to take the existing system and really make it strong and responsive to the kinds of concerns that you're seeing come up from different governments at this conference.
NNAMDIIndeed, even in this country, Craig Timberg, advocates of what is called net neutrality don't like the idea that private Internet service providers can pick and choose which content they deliver to their users. Thus far it hasn't been a major problem, but could it be?
TIMBERGYeah. I mean, if you're a cable company that delivers Internet into people's homes, and 85 percent of your band width is being sucked up by Netflix, I mean, you can understand why they might want -- your Internet service provider makes certain representations to you about how fast their service is, and so you can kind of sort of see why, you know, if there's one service that's sucking up huge amounts of the band width that becomes a problem for them.
TIMBERGAt the same time, you know, very few companies in America do only one thing, and so if the cable companies are aligned with certain, you know, or aligned against Netflix, for example, because the cable companies also deliver movies and Netflix delivers movies, it's very easy to see the mayhem that you could create if, you know, if someone sitting in a control room in, you know in Comcast headquarters can sort of turn on and off different services rather than having the consumer decide what they want. So it's very fraught.
NNAMDIBut that on the other hand is not quite the same as a government that is -- or a group of governments that has some kind of regulatory power over the Internet. Here is David in Herndon, Va. David, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DAVIDI think the most important thing about the treaty negotiations going on is that the United States needs to stand firmly for the liberty of people all over the world to use and participate in the Internet in the same way ideally that goes on here and in other western societies. I don't think it's any accident that the countries that are putting every effort into this treaty format to produce a different result are by and large dictatorships that are not accountable for people who don't want to see a proliferation of tools that would make it harder for their people to get around their will.
DAVIDAmericans need to recognize that once you have a treaty regime over anything, then there's always going to be bargaining about how -- where the middle is. So if the United States were ever to sign onto a treaty in which some kind of legitimacy was recognized for government control over the Internet, then our position becomes extreme like, and the middle positions for which bargaining will almost always go is half a loaf. And I don't think we want half a loaf.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, David. From what we have discussed so far, Emma Llanso, the likelihood of the chances of the United States signing onto a treaty like that seem to be at this point slim and none. But the Dubai conference wraps up tomorrow. Will we see any decisions that may have immediate impact on how the Internet operates around the world?
LLANSOAt this point it's still not clear. They've been debating for days at this point, but as of I think when -- about when we started talking, they were going into their final plenary of the day. It's about 10:30 at night in Dubai, and they're still debating some of the key definitional provisions. So it's not exactly clear how this is all going to shake out, but I think -- I mean, it's very unlikely that the United States is going to sign onto anything that puts the, you know, massive authority in the hands of an intergovernmental body like this.
LLANSOI think what we're really seeing is governments laying out, you know, putting all of their cards on the table and saying this is our vision for the future of the Internet. This is the -- these are the kinds of issues that matter to us, and this is what we're going to be pursuing whether it succeeds in this treaty or not. So we're getting a good sense of where different lines are being drawn, and that's going to be shaping the debate for years to come.
NNAMDIClearly then the debate is far from over. Emma Llanso is policy counsel with the Center for Democracy and Technology. Emma, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDICraig Timberg is national technology reporter with the Washington Post, and author of the book "Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic, and How the World Can Finally Overcome It." Craig Timber, good to see you again.
TIMBERGGood to see you, too.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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