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.”
Fears That New ITU Treaty Will Erode Web Freedoms Are Exaggerated
A number of ITU member nations have sent up proposed versions of the treaty, some of which would give the ITU regulatory powers over the Internet. This, and the fact that the treaty negotiations are taking place in secret with only government representatives allowed to participate has brought about a lot of hysteria about the UN planning to take over the Internet.
This isn’t going to happen, as the IEEE’s Steven Cherry reports in a podcast released on the WCIT’s opening day. But as Cherry points out, there are some important issues that do need to be worked out, including cyber-security and the domain name system. Unfortunately, the WCIT meeting is also being used by a number of nations to find a way to perform a power grab over the Internet.
Because of the secretive nature of these meetings, and the fact that the free flow of information is both critical to the success of the Internet and at the same time dangerous to repressive regimes, there’s a lot of concern. Vint Cerf, one of the inventors of the Internet, expressed his concerns in the Google Public Policy Blog.
“Our protocols were designed to make the networks of the Internet non-proprietary and interoperable. They avoided “lock-in,” and allowed for contributions from many sources. This openness is why the Internet creates so much value today. Because it is borderless and belongs to everyone, it has brought unprecedented freedoms to billions of people worldwide: the freedom to create and innovate, to organize and influence, to speak and be heard.”
“But starting in a few hours, a closed-door meeting of the world’s governments is taking place in Dubai, and regulation of the Internet is on the agenda. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is convening a conference from December 3-14 to revise a decades-old treaty, in which only governments have a vote. Some proposals could allow governments to justify the censorship of legitimate speech, or even cut off Internet access in their countries.”
While there will surely be a concerted effort to erode Internet freedom to meet the goals of totalitarian governments, the chances of this actually happening are slim. For one thing, it appears that the majority of the member nations are much more interested in making sure the Internet stays open as a way to help their economies. For another, even if such language were to become part of the proposed treaty, it’s very unlikely that the U.S. and the rest of the Western world would adopt the treaty, which would make it meaningless.
So you don’t really have to worry about the UN taking over the Internet. What’s a lot more important is creating a means by which international cyber-crime can be effectively fought, or that the technical operation of the Internet can continue to function and advance. One hopes that the WCIT will agree to this instead of wasting two weeks to cut special exceptions for totalitarian regimes or catching some rays in the Dubai sun.