The Internet Takeover That Never Was
Delegates to the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications gathered for an opening press conference Dec. 3, 2012. Photo by the International Telecommunications Union.
This week and next, representatives from the world's 193 nations are gathered in Dubai for the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications, WCIT-12 for short, a treaty-level conference to determine international rules for telecommunciations.
The 11-day conference has a singular focus: to revise regulations, known as the ITRs (International Telecommunications Regulations), that have not been touched since 1988 to include language and possible rules about the infrastructure of the Internet.
But even before country delegations arrived Monday, giant corporations like Google, tech experts and Internet access activists have been attempting to whip the Web's two billion users into a frenzied fear, positing the worst possible outcomes of an expanded treaty, from "World War 3.0" to the end of Internet freedom to a hostile Internet takeover by the ITU.
So here is a basic breakdown of the major players, what's at stake, and why an intergovernmental treaty that may sound just like another bureaucratic measure could be important to the Web user.
WHO ARE THE KEY PLAYERS?
International Telecommunications Union: The ITU is a United Nations special agency that began in 1865, at first regulating international networks for telegraphs and subsequently telephones. Its primary mission is to improve connectivity across telecommunications networks.
Members of the ITU: The primary members are member states, representatives from the 193 countries of the world. In addition, there are more the 700 private organizations that have joined as non-voting sector members.
National Governments: Overlapping as members of the ITU, national governments have telecommunications agendas that diverge from the mission of the ITU. The United States and other countries in the West are first and foremost concerned with preserving an open and free Internet, limiting regulation on what they see as a successful system.
A second group of countries, including Russia and China, believe that the U.S. has too much control over how the Internet operations. These countries are pushing to expand regulations so that national governments have more control over the Internet.
And many developing countries are interested in expanding access and making high speed Internet and broadband so that more of their citizens can use the internet for social and economic benefits.
Private and Civil Society: This includes non-profits, academic organizations, think tanks and probably most importantly, multi-national corporations that do huge amounts of business on the Internet in a digital economy.
WHAT ARE PEOPLE SO WORRIED ABOUT?
Concerns about new Internet regulations largely revolve around two things: the freedom and accessibility of the Internet and a lack of transparency and participation at WCIT.
Adding infrastructure of the Internet to its jurisdiction would be a big move for the ITU since the Internet was never mentioned in the original 1988 treaty, created at a time when the Internet was still in its relative infancy. This concerns people that doubt the ability of the ITU to take a telco treaty from the 80s and impose it on a highly decentralized Internet.
A broad consensus of civil and private sector groups submitted a statement to the Secretariat of the ITU in November 2012, with concerns that changes to the treaty could radically disrupt the free and open way in which the Internet currently operates.
Several developed countries, including the U.S. and much of Western Europe, have also raised concerns about human rights. They are worried that some of the 900 submitted proposals could affect freedom of information and an open Internet. For example, one such proposal from Russia proposes significant changes to Internet protocol routing that could grant governments the ability to filter citizens' online activity and suppress dissent.
"It would make it easier for national governments to monitor traffic, violate human rights and obstruct commercial and political exchange across borders," said Tim Maurer, a program associate at New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute, a nonpartisan think tank devoted to promoting open, accessible communications networks worldwide.
In the months leading up to the conference, nongovernmental organizations and businesses also criticized WCIT for limiting the civil and private sector's participation at the conference to observer status only. Only the 193 member nations and their delegations are allowed to submit proposals and revisions to the treaty.
THIS IS 'NOT ABOUT TAKING OVER THE INTERNET'
On the flip side of dire warnings that the U.N. is preparing an Internet takeover, many, including U.S. State Department officials, have stated that the controversy of WCIT in recent months has been blown out of proportion.
"The idea that this meeting is meant to be an Internet takeover has been exaggerated," said Milton Mueller, a professor in the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University. "Basically what you have is a very old treaty -- which still has references to the telegram -- and a very old institution that realizes that the Internet has become dominant so they would like to have some sort of leverage in that system."
Paul Budde, an independent telecom analyst attending the WCIT, offered as a different reason for the disconnect between the goals of WCIT and the perceived threat that larger tech world feels from the conference. "You get a large variety of people that are all coming on board and all want to talk about the Internet," he said in an interview with the ITU. "They are not necessarily wanting to talk about the basic infrastructure underneath," that is the foundation for discussions at WCIT. The conference will only address the more technical issues and the regulatory issues, he said.
In his remarks on Monday, ITU Secretary General Hamadoun Touré said his agency had no surreptitious intentions. "Let me be very clear one more time: WCIT is not about taking over the Internet." he said.
Mueller said Touré is undoubtedly cognizant of the pressure he's currently facing to avoid making drastic changes. "The ITU definitely understands that it can't create a coup d'etat of Internet control without the consent of major industry players," Mueller said.
HOW COULD THIS CHANGE THE STRUCTURE OF THE INTERNET?
According to Maurer, governments have become interested in expanding Internet regulations and state control because of two very basic things: politics and money. With billions of people using the Internet on a regular basis, governments see strong political and economic advantages to have more control over Internet access, he said.
But analyst Budde strongly supports the conference, saying it is essential to ensuring that Internet is accessible for the largest amount of people. He says that ordinary citizens, "don't think twice about the fact that you can make a telephone call here in Dubai and someone in Timbuktu picks the telephone up. Or you send an internet file from one place to another. But obviously there's a huge infrastructure behind it." Budde believes that adding Internet language to the ITRs will only ensure that the Internet's infrastructure is made sound, affordable, secure and private. "All are things people are very concerned about," he said.
But even if it is assumed that an expanded revised treaty may be more worrisome than beneficial, Maurer says it's premature to predict what the potential impact may be, if any. The ITRs would only come into full force if a majority of countries ratify it into national law, and that could take years.
Should an insufficient number of countries ratify the treaty, it will not be binding by law for anyone. And even if the ITU meets the threshold to enforce new regulations, if key Web traffic producers like the U.S., do not sign, the power of the treaty may be slight. "It might not impact anything," Maurer said.
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Wired | Brett Solomon: "The U.N. Shouldn't Make Decisions About an Open Internet Behind Closed Doors"
International Telecommunications Union: "WCIT-12 Frequently Asked Questions"
The New York Times | Eric Pfanner: "Debunking Rumors of an Internet Takeover"