Rusty old sabres are being rattled in the US body politic as the Dubai WCIT approaches. At stake is... well, nobody's quite sure, but something must be. By Ian Scales.
What's clear is that the ITU (or rather some of its members) don't get the Internet; US politicians mistrust the UN (and therefore the ITU) and some of the US media don't bother to dig in and understand the issues. What you end up with is a puzzled and disappointed ITU Secretary General and a debate that appears to have veered wildly off course into some sort of cold war revival.
ITU Secretary-General, Hamadoun Touré, told an online press conference on Friday that he was disappointed about document leaks in the run-up to the WCIT (when delegates from 193 ITU member states meet in Dubai in December for the World Conference on International Telecommunication) and the way the press had distorted the subsequent story.
As we reported earlier this month (see - Web and technology companies get edgy about new Internet rules) leaked discussion documents triggered fears in the US about an attempted "UN takeover" of the Internet. Critics were worried that repressive regimes in Russia and the Middle East had ambitions to use the ITU to bring in new regulations that would clamp down on the free flow of information across the Internet, introduce Internet taxes and usher in - through some sort of 'sender pays' accounting rate for data - content termination compensation.
A bit of a media storm then ensued as politicians picked up the "Internet in danger of being hijacked" story and ran with it. Amongst the shrill voices was that of FCC commissioner Robert McDowell who told Congress last month of a 'lethal' threat to the Internet, opposition to which was already garnering bi-partisan support in Washington. McDowell warned politicians of "seemingly innocuous expansions of inter-governmental power." The ITU, he said, spoke with forked tongue. On the one hand you had member states calling for control while on the other you had the ITU saying it wasn't asking for any governance.
On friday, Touré told journalists this was all being blown up out of all proportion, and maintained that the ITU was committed to liberalisation, competition and seeing the Internet continue to grow.
He then went slightly further, claiming credit for the ITU in helping usher in the Internet we have today by steering through the last lot of International Telecoms Regulations (ITRs) in 1988.
In fact this is a slight history upgrade - to Version 1.5, perhaps - and was introduced as a 'why would we kill our own baby?' plea. In fact, in 1988 the Internet was still pre-Web and for the telecoms establishment at least, was not expected to be a run-away success. The new regulations were more about ushering in a world of telecom operator competition and liberalisation by enabling things like companies other than incumbent national telcos to own and run circuits - all highly necessary for global telecom operator competition.
At that time the Internet was seen more as an interesting, mostly academic, exercise that might, at most, serve as a testbed for service ideas. These would naturally be instantiated as telecoms services in the future over broadband ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) and would enable services such as video phones and 'multimedia' information services (essentially the services the Internet is enabling today).
Then came the World Wide Web and by the mid-1990s it had become clear that the telco view of how services would be developed, managed and monetized (and by whom) wasn't necessarily going to pan out. The problem was and is that the telco infrastructure investment case to investors was and is heavily bolstered by an expectation of substantial and growing revenues from services in addition to the traditional connectivity. With the Web dominant that looks less certain and we've had 15 years of grumbling about free rides on dumb pipes as a result.
As to those pesky leaked documents and their distinctly uncool ideas about free flow of information and the role of censorship? Well, the slightly mad ones wouldn't make it through the filtering process anyway. At the press conference Touré couldn't say that, but that's what he and Richard Hill, of the ITU and Telecommunication Standardisation Bureau, implied.
As to there being some sort of "power grab" as alleged by some of the more rabid US politicians: "There are no proposals along those lines," said Hill.
That's not to say that the ITU hierarchy has been blameless . In the run-up to the agenda-setting meetings, the ITU uncharacteristically went slightly partial over the vexed issue of infrastructure investment and whether the Internet's peering regime should be tweaked to channel more money to telcos/ISPs. The supporting evidence - that Internet costs and revenues are fundamentally unaligned - was presented by the ITU as if it were solid fact when in fact it's highly contentious. There is a persuasive argument that if demand for bandwidth is making things difficult for telcos they should re-visit their business models rather than attempt to change the fundamental Internet economics which are anchored by settlement-free peering.
But back in reality, the ITU's structure and decision-making tradition makes it unsuited to becoming an Internet governing body of the sort feared by US politicians, even if it wanted to (which it doesn't, though some of its members might wish it).
As Touré himself pointed out, the ITU prides itself on reaching complete consensus on all issues and never has a 'vote' on any of its major decisions. If an issue is too fraught for consensus to work then the ITU swerves around it (by weeding out contentious discussion topics before they hit the plenaries) or by just dropping an issue if consensus can't be reached.
The same will be true, he implied, in Dubai. If there were to be anything highly disagreeable to the US delegations, then it simply wouldn't get through.
"We expect an agreement that will satisfy all states," said Touré.
In a strange twist of fate, Richard Butler, who was Secretary General of the ITU in 1988 when the last ITRs were passed, has died. After he retired he remained active in telecoms as an elder statesman and was a member of this year's Australian delegation to the World Radiocommunication Conference.
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