Up to Speed: One Agency to Rule the Internet
A global conference next week in Dubai could affect the way you use the Internet.
Up to Speed gets you up-to-date on key events, people and issues in technology quickly and succinctly, providing the essential information in one place.
What Is This Meeting?
At the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), organized by the United Nations' International Telecommunication Union (ITU), global government representatives will review the current International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs), which are part of a treaty that establishes general principles to guide the governance of international telecommunications.
What Is This Agency?
The ITU is responsible for everything from allocating the spectrum that powers your mobile devices and managing telecom satellite orbits, to assigning country dialing codes and setting the standards for the global telecommunications system. ITU members include 193 member states, regulators, leading academic institutions and approximately 700 private companies.
ITU is the single global organization embracing all players in an increasingly interconnected world.
What Will Happen at WCIT?
The purpose of the conference is to review the ITRs, which were established back in 1988 and not revised since that time. The ITRs are under the authority of the ITU and include guidelines for telecommunication network operators, quality of international services, establishing priorities for health and safety and protecting networks and services.
The ITRs were previously endorsed by 178 countries and serve as the binding global treaty designed to facilitate information and communication services. They are intended to facilitate "global interconnection and interoperability" of telecommunications traffic across national borders and are generally applied to classic telecommunications services, but not the modern-day Internet, which was only in its infancy when the ITRs were drafted.
In the twenty-plus years since the ITRs were conceived, a slew of Internet innovations sparked opportunities and presented challenges to people and governments, but the original guidelines haven't been altered.
Proposals to modify and possibly include the Internet in the ITRs could have significant implications for the Web's future.
What's At Stake?
Some are concerned the ITU could extend its reach to include governance of data privacy, security, access and data routing on the Internet, which could possibly allow authoritarian states to restrict online dissent. Many fear the ITU could make an Internet "power grab" at this conference, underscored by a number of leaked proposals prepared by participating ITU countries and detailing ways to expand the ITU's authority.
The concern is bringing together an unlikely coalition of campaigners: governments and corporations like Google, groups like the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers -- or ICANN, the body responsible for coordinating the system of domain names -- and trade unions and advocates for a free Internet.
A group called WCITleaks.org created a website to enlighten the public on preparations for this meeting and is posting the documents which are submitted to them anonymously so they can be publicly available. The group says the upcoming Dubai meeting is "marred by a lack of transparency" because access to preliminary reports, as well as proposed modification to the ITRs is limited to its membership "and a few other privileged parties."
Leaked proposals from Russia unearthed by WCITLeaks, includes suggestions such as giving member states "equal rights to manage the Internet," granting "the sovereign right to establish and implement public policy," and the right to "regulate the national Internet segment."
ETNO-related proposals published on the leaks site, from Europe's principal policy group for electronic communications network operators representing 50 members in 35 countries, include incorporating a "sender pays" model that could replace the current unregulated system where commercials deals are made between parties. Under these proposals, network operators would be allowed to charge companies that provide content services "enhanced" fees for "value-added network services," or the ability to institute a fee for using networks that allow their content-heavy sites to reach international markets.
Since many of the largest data-moving websites -- like Google, Facebook, Apple and Netflix -- affected by the proposed sender's tax are U.S.-based, if these talks gain traction, the proposal could be voted on by all the 192 ITU countries.
Other concerns relate to specific clauses and technical definitions, such as the treatment of spam. Some groups and unions fear these could be broadened, subjecting them to interference by states. Another proposal in the swirl of controversy would accord ITU member states the right to regulate the routing of data through their boundaries.
Who Are the Key Players and What Do They Want?
- Emerging global economic players: China, Russia, India, Brazil and a host of other countries are expressing support for greater control over their population's access to the Internet, raising concern they will use ITU expansion to kick off a process to reign in Internet freedoms.
- The U.S.: Lawmakers are advocating against greater U.N. Internet control, insisting these measures would hamper freedom of speech and hurt online businesses. In a rare bipartisan agreement, legislators warned the Obama administration against voting to increase ITU authority at this December conference.
- The European Parliament: The European Parliament voted last week overwhelmingly in favor of recommending its 27 member-states oppose ITU proposals. Dutch Member of the European Parliament Marietje Schaake cited potential negatives if the ITU gained more management powers over the Internet, "Some international telecommunications regulations reform proposals being presented by the ITU member states would negatively impact the internet, its architecture, operations, content and security, business relations, Internet governance and the free flow of information online."
- Corporations: Online businesses are paying close attention, too. Robert McDowell, a member of the Federal Communications Commission, predicted U.N. Internet control will enable "international mandates to charge certain Web destinations on a 'per-click' basis to fund the build-out of broadband infrastructure across the globe."
This summer, Google, Amazon, eBay and Facebook announced their charter membership in a new lobbying group called the Internet Association, to join together to influence policy and assert their preferences on developing regulations.
More recently, Google is taking the point position opposing any ITU expansion talks at the WCIT meeting. Google is calling the conference a "closed door meeting," and established a #freeandopen campaign, complete with an online petition to encourage users to protest changes to Internet governance.
Google's campaign asserts the "ITU is bringing together regulators from around the world to re-negotiate a decades-old communications treaty, "and that some of the innovation-crushing proposals could "permit governments to censor legitimate speech" and require services like YouTube, Facebook and Skype to pay new "tolls" in order to reach people across borders.
What Does the ITU Say to These Criticisms?
In response, the ITU says it does not want to control the Internet and has completed a "very thorough and inclusive preparatory process" in the lead up to the conference. The agency added, alluding to Google's complaints it isn't transparent, "We regret that Google did not take the opportunity to choose to join ITU as a member, which would have enabled it to participate in its own right in the WCIT-12 preparatory process"
The ITU denies any attempt at a "Net grab" and asserts the agency is concerned with laying down the principles to ensure global connectivity, not global Internet governance.
Also, following the latest leaks on WCITLeaks, the WCIT issued a statement describing some of the leaked versions as "inaccurate," joining other reluctant to over-esteem the impact the conference could have.
What Does This Mean For You?
The players are jockeying in advance of WCIT's December meeting, and many of the preliminary proposals may not even see the light of day. But the attention and controversy surrounding them illustrates that people, companies and governments around the world understand how even a small bureaucratic tweak can have profound effects.
"The Net prospered precisely because governments -- for the most part -- allowed the Internet to grow organically, with civil society, academia, private sector and voluntary standards bodies collaborating on development, operation and governance", wrote Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet, in a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times.
Both sides of the issue are forming alliances over how the Internet functions, underscoring the drama building in anticipation of the meeting. The U.S. State Department recently alluded to an "Electronic Curtain," replacing the Iron Curtain of the Cold War era, descending between nations.
At heart, the debate frames the issue over into two basic camps. Some suggest a top-down, government-led approach away from U.S. and western influence. Those concerned with censorship think this would enable the suppression of free speech, hurt openness, and inhibit creativity and innovation.
Others, like Greenpeace, say ITU proposals which seek to "undermine the currently free, open and inherently democratic governance of the Internet" -- might just be "the tip of the iceberg," and they oppose any expansion of ITU authority regarding the Internet.
The upcoming WCIT meeting may end without any ITU action or expansion. Still, the issues, including the most appropriate way of regulating the Internet, ensuring greater global considerations, accounting for the Internet's economic impact and possibly re-evaluating pricing models, are likely here to stay for some time to come. ♦
Categories: News Desk