Fears That New ITU Treaty Will Erode Web Freedoms Are Exaggerated

NEWS ANALYSIS: Chances are pretty good that the WCIT meeting won't really change anything other than witness a futile effort by repressive regimes to throttle back Internet openness. But it might produce some useful technical agreements.

Delegates to the World Conference on International Telecommunications start meeting on Dec. 3 to discuss the way information is moved around the world. The WCIT is a group that works under the auspices of the International Telecommunications Union whose primary purpose is to ensure that global communications meet standards that allow interoperability. The reason you can dial a number in, say, Dubai from your desk in New York is because of standards created by the ITU.

While the ITU has some other responsibilities as well, such as encouraging widespread availability, it has no regulatory powers. The ITU is a body in which delegates agree to treaties that must then be adopted by the member nations. The content of the treaties that are hammered out by these meetings may do a number of things, such as specify how billing between national phone systems takes place, or how voice or wireless communications happen.

However, just because the ITU has no regulatory power doesn’t mean it has no power. Because it’s a body that operates as a part of the United Nations, it gets the power that the UN gives it. However its ability to exercise any power relies on the cooperation of the national governments that comprise the UN.

What this means is the ITU can’t impose any sort of Internet regulation on individuals or businesses that operate in the United States or any other nation unless that nation ratifies the treaty and as a result, agrees to be bound by it. But the stark reality is that if enough major players around the world do agree that the ITU can regulate the Internet, it will effectively be able to do so.

And this is the problem with the WCIT meeting in Dubai. In and of itself, it’s just a way to get the members of the ITU to agree on Internet standards. But those Internet standards already exist and they were developed and agreed to by the people who created the Internet and who now run it regardless of whether they’re in the United States or somewhere else.

For example, the issuance of IP addresses by ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) the non-profit organization that handles addresses and domain names, operates only because the participants on the Internet have chosen to operate that way.

Likewise, the idea of an open Internet isn’t required by law, but rather by the practice that’s grown up with the Internet. This is why some nations, such as China and Iran, can close off the Internet from their citizens without any real consequences.

Now the WCIT is considering a treaty that, in the words of the ITU, “sets out general principles for ensuring the free flow of information around the world and promoting affordable and equitable access for all.”

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...