In one way the "hysterical" campaign against the ITU waged mostly in the US is understandable. The threat as perceived by the Internet defenders comes from what one of our contributors, Seth Johnson, calls a 'frame', a way of thinking, a direction of travel, rather than an overnight hijacking (see - WCIT split looms as ITR proposals highlight global digital divide)
Frames don't lend themselves to readily understandable slogans and calls for action. They need simplifying.
But just because an intellectual attack appears hysterical doesn't mean that, in the long run, it's wrong. The Internet camp believes that some of the proposed ITRs will eventually lead to a fracturing of the Internet with constrained access engineered behind national boundaries (see - ITU meeting faces hostility from OTT players
The ITU, on the other hand, thinks new regulations would only amount to sensible adjustments to the way the Internet is run presently. But it's made things worse for its argument by seeming to be secretive and partial.
In defensive mode it's strategy has too often been to rebut a great big argument by taking issue with a little small point. It's not quite pedantry, but it's heading that way and it's a technique we all know from the playground (some of us still use it when we're in a corner).
When US accusations of ITU intentions to take over the Internet first struck way back in June, ITU secretary general Hamadoun Touré told a briefing of telephonically assembled hacks that it was all stuff and nonsense. The ITU he said, wasn't able to take over the internet even if it wanted to - it was just a creature of its members.
Yes, all right then. We actually understood that, but let's rephrase. So apparently its 'members' (or some of them) want to take over the Internet. How does he answer?
That too was stuff and nonsense. Nothing ever happens on a vote, said Hamadoun Touré, and he couldn't remember when there ever was one - it was all done by consensus. If no consensus could be built around something (like an ITR) then it wouldn't happen.
So sometimes the ITU is its members and sometimes it's a UN agency - it all depends where a specific argument has got to.
But the gist of the message from the ITU (the agency this time) was that, yes, there may be the odd mad idea floating around, but that the voting system would soon iron it out. The highly contentious stuff will be dumped or, at the least, put off for further study and deliberation.
The observer is surely then entitled to wonder about the point of an inter-government treaty in the first place. If WCIT and the subsequent ITRs were only addressing issues that could sail through on a consensus basis then there seems little point in the whole state-level exercise. Couldn't these things be decided in a less heavy-handed way by other appropriate global bodies?
Of course that question wasn't asked because nobody really believed that WCIT was just going to be an exercise in consensus-building.
More on that in a moment
What about the other 'side'? Out of the west came Terry Kramer, the US government-appointed ambassador who is leading the US delegation to the WCIT
In a video on the TelecomTV site, Kramer
makes it clear the US has red lines it won't cross: "We in the US can always 'tick a reservation' that we won't comply, that we have a different view [...] If there are strongly objectionable proposals: payment models on the internet that we are wholly going to disagree with; means to control content and censor traffic; [then] we will not agree to those and we can basically say we take a reservation and that we're not going to participate."
But of course Kramer too is a diplomat. He is subsequently quoted as saying that he would like to try and get consensus and build a common approach... and so on. But he's clear that the US position won't cave in to any of the aforementioned agendas. And furthermore Kramer has (amazingly) unanimous US political backing for a tough stance on the whole issue, thanks to what the ITU regards as an underhand campaign by Google to scare the US body politic into a jingoistic frenzy over the possibility of the Internet being snatched away by an unaccountable UN.
How much tail wind Google actually applied to this US reaction (if any) is debatable. A more measured analysis might conclude that the accusation reveals more about the ITU's (I mean the agency here, as well as some of its members) thought processes as it does about any political machinations.
Any threat of government regulation of the Internet is bound to cause a storm in the US and the fact that it was being 'threatened' by a UN agency simply made it more egregious. It was a political and public reaction that needed no funding from Google to take fire.
And the suggestion, often made, that the opposition to the proposed ITRs is really "all about money" is just dead wrong as anyone who actually speaks and listens to the protagonists in this debate knows. The suggestion that Vinton Cerf, for instance, often styled 'Father of the Internet' and now Google's 'Internet Evangelist' is primarily motivated by wodges of Google cash to highlight what he sees as a threat to the Internet, is simply absurd... and reductionist.
Much of the most diligent opposition to the ITRs comes from people who volunteer their services free to various organisations... just because they 'believe'.
So where are we? And what are the prospects for the consensus that Terry Kramer and Hamadoun Touré both claim is their preferred outcome?
The next 10 days or so will no doubt prove any prognostication wrong, which is why it may be useful to delve into a document the ITU circulated internally and which subsequently appeared on WCITleaks
It's a briefing document for a management retreat held back in September. In it, the ITU (presumably the agency, not the members) outlines six possible outcomes. They are NOT, you won't be surprised to learn, all slight variations around the consensus promised by the secretary general.
1. Consensus on a treaty that is substantively identical to the existing ITRs. New issues would be mentioned in Resolutions, if at all. This is the outcome desired by the USA and some European countries.
2. A large majority of countries agree a treaty that is substantively different from the existing ITRs, but a significant number of countries refuses to sign. The minority would include most OECD countries. So the split would be something like 100 versus 40.
3. Almost all countries agree to a treaty that is substantively different from the existing ITRs, but the US and a few of its close allies refuse to sign.
4. Consensus on a treaty that is substantively different from the existing ITRs, perhaps with reservations from some OECD countries regarding specific articles.
Combinations of these outcomes are also possible, for example:
5. Nos. 3 or 4 above, plus an optional additional protocol that is signed by some countries (e.g. for security matters).
6. Nos. 3 or 4 above, followed by an intensive anti-ratification campaign in OECD countries, based on the so-called lack of openness of the WCIT process, resulting in a significant number of countries refusing to ratify the new ITRs (the so-called ACTA scenario).
The ITU thinks it unlikely, given all the circumstances, that either 1 or 4 will happen. Which leaves 2 and 3 as the most likely outcomes (along with its 5 and 6 combination outcomes).
And 2 and 3, whatever gloss is put upon them, will be schism. Many observers have pointed out that the US has spent many decades in last 150 years outside the ITU. It's just about possible that it may do so again.
please sign in to rate this article