Assessing Telecom Treaty's ImpactWhy the Measure Could Suffocate Internet Freedom
An international telecommunications treaty, approved in Dubai in early December, is a veiled threat to suffocate Internet freedom internationally, says Rep. Jim Langevin, the Rhode Island Democrat who co-chairs the House Cybersecurity Caucus.
The treaty, known as International Telecommunication Regulations, is opposed by the United States and other Western nations, because it gives each nation's government the right to regulate the Internet within its own borders.
Langevin sees the treaty as a measure of control to prevent communication. "[It's] really used by authoritarian governments to crack down Internet usage and types of communication that take place," he says in an interview with Information Security Media Group [transcript below].
In the interview, Langevin highlights areas of the world that have used the Internet to coordinate and communicate pro-democracy movements. "[Some countries] have made an attempt, and in some ways have succeeded, in being able to bifurcate the Internet, being able to reign in controls that are going to limit freedom of discussion and freedom of speech."
Countering the treaty will be difficult, Langevin says. "We need to continue to be vocal and we need to be transparent about what has happened there," he explains. "I believe that we keep the pressure on and we do our best to try to reverse what this convention has adopted."
"There are ways to achieve Internet security, and I'm concerned about security, but we can do it without stifling communications," Langevin says. "No one should be diluted into thinking that what was achieved here are stronger levels of cybersecurity."
In the interview, Langevin addresses:
- How the treaty could affect Americans;
- Its impact on IT security and privacy;
- Steps the United States and other treaty opponents should take to limit its impact.
Few lawmakers on Capitol Hill can claim to be as involved in initiatives aimed at safeguarding federal IT systems and the nation's critical IT infrastructure as Langevin, who was elected to his seventh term in November. Along with Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, Langevin co-founded the House Cybersecurity Caucus. Both representatives also co-chaired the Commission on Cybersecurity for the 44th Presidency, which issued a report that served as the foundation of President Obama's cyberspace policy.
Stifling Internet Freedom
ERIC CHABROW: You say the telecom treaty the U.S. opposes, International Telecommunication Regulations, would result in a significant setback for anyone who believes free expression is a universal right. How so?
JIM LANGEVIN: The Internet is a free open architecture. Freedom is the cornerstone of the Internet, the freedom of communication, and unfortunately what happened at the World Conference on International Telecommunications is designed to, I believe, stifle that freedom and restrict communications. [It's] really used by authoritarian governments to crack down Internet usage and types of communication that take place. I was very disappointed in the outcome but very pleased the United States and other Western nations did not support what they were trying to do.
CHABROW: So for example, nations under this treaty could disrupt Internet coverage within their country, stifling protest?
LANGEVIN: That's exactly right. This is clearly a veiled attempt to try to stifle communication. Especially, we've seen in some parts of the world a wave of revolution take place because people are just hungry for democracy, and they were able to coordinate and communicate on an unprecedented level, and that's something that totalitarian regimes clearly don't want to see. Some of the worst offenders, whether it's on human rights or pro-democracy movements, have tried to stifle. They have made an attempt, and in some ways have succeeded, in being able to bifurcate the Internet, being able to reign in controls and put in place controls that are going to limit freedom of discussion and freedom of speech.
Threatening Security, Privacy
CHABROW: How would the treaty threaten Internet security and privacy?
LANGEVIN: Essentially, the bifurcation is an issue that threatens that security. The Internet is primarily based on the idea of no, or just very small, government controls or involvement, and I always think that the government, any government, should have the lightest touch possible when it comes to regulating the Internet. Now you're going to have some countries that have a very light regulatory regime governing the Internet, and now you're going to have countries that have a very heavily regulated Internet, and it's going to be very difficult for people in those totalitarian, dominant countries to be able to freely use the Internet without their communications being monitored or communications being blocked.
Impact to Americans
CHABROW: Does it affect Americans contacting people in those countries?
LANGEVIN: It very well could. If foreign government is limiting communications, then people that might be communicating with people in the United States or other countries, talking about pro-democracy movement, their communication could very well be cut off.
Action Being Taken
CHABROW: Anything that can be done about it now?
LANGEVIN: At this point, it's unclear. It's going to be very difficult if these foreign governments stopped basically strong controls over the Internet. Using the cover of the International Telecommunication Union and under the guidance of this World Conference on International Telecommunications, it's going to be very difficult to prevent them from undoing or putting whatever controls they put in place. We need to continue to be vocal and we need to be transparent about what has happened there. I believe that we keep the pressure on and we do our best to try to reverse what this convention has adopted.
There are ways to achieve Internet security, and I'm concerned about security, but we can do it without stifling communications. No one should be diluted into thinking that what was achieved here are stronger levels of cybersecurity. I believe this is an attempt to put unacceptable controls on the Internet. It's really the first of many attempts to stifle freedom, and I want to commend the State Department, as well as other Western governments, who are firm in belief and fight for democracy, that we would not go quietly about this. We're not going to just let it pass without the vociferous opposition. I'm very pleased in how the State Department has handled this issue.