WCIT 2012 – The end of the Internet world?

Not likely.

The much-anticipated World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) got underway on Monday in Dubai. For my sins, I am representing auDA as an Advisor to the Australian Government delegation at the two-week event.

So why is a representative of a ccTLD involved in an International Telecommunications Union (ITU) process that is looking at rules and procedures that guide the interconnection and operation of telecommunication networks? Why – if the Mayans are to be believed - am I spending two of the last three weeks of the world at a giant, sterile, inter-governmental conference?

Simple. There’s Buckley’s chance of the conference limiting itself to telecoms regulations and every chance that it could meander into matters relating to Internet governance and management . . .   though perhaps not in the overt way that many panicked commentators would have us believe.

There are many reasons why extending the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs) into the Internet space is an undesirable outcome. While there have been lengthy national and regional preparatory processes, no one can be precisely sure what will happen during the next fortnight. The lesson many learnt from the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2005 is that events can take a nasty turn once everyone meets face-to-face and that’s why it’s a good idea to be in the room when these discussions occur.

The story so far

By way of background – the aforementioned ITRs are a global treaty which outlines principles governing the way international telecommunications are handled. They create obligations for ITU Members State on a range of issues such as:

  • The interoperability of telecommunications networks around the world
  • Ensuring priority for emergency telecommunications services and
  • Charging and taxation rates between international telecommunications providers

The ITRs were developed way back in 1988 at a conference in Melbourne. The world has changed a lot since then, with the liberalisation and privatisation of communications networks and the establishment and exponential growth of the Internet. One can get a feel for just how archaic the ITRs are just by looking at the title of the meeting at which they were developed – “The World Administrative Telegraph and Telephone Conference”! So it’s timely and appropriate that they get a spruce-up.

There will be a lot of red-lining, square-bracketing of text and even extensive negotiations over the inclusion, omission and meaning of individual words, each of which carries tremendous meaning once inserted into a treaty. If you want to get some idea of the extent of the cutting ‘n’ pasting that will occur, check out this resource that summarises all of them.

So far so good. Armageddon averted.

Why all the outrage and angst?

Well, while WCIT will inevitably include a lot of simple editorial changes to clauses and articles that have become out-of-date, there will also be pressure to amend and add to the ITRs to reflect new issues and economic paradigms.

As I mentioned earlier, only 25 years ago, the ITU was talking about telegraph and telephones. The times are a’ changin’ and the ITU also feels the need to change. I would too if I was facing the possibility of becoming obsolete or irrelevant. Add to this a number of authoritarian regimes that wouldn’t mind exerting greater control over the communications of their citizens, developing countries that want a fair go regarding Internet development and charging, and Member States that want to explicitly mention “Internet” in the ITRs (I’m looking at you, Russia) and there is serious potential for the conference to wander into dangerous territory.

That said, none of this warrants the considerable hysteria in the media about WCIT – about how the UN is trying to “take over the Internet” and that the event, which is largely closed to external input from those not representing governments, will arrive at outcomes that stifle innovation, regulate the Internet, and even suppress fundamental human rights and freedoms of expression. This teeth-gnashing and vocal opposition has not been limited to the press – politicians, rather big Internet companies and even trade unions and Greenpeace (!) have weighed in.

Much of this negativity has been perpetuated by those that either:

  • don’t understand exactly what WCIT is about and what the ITU can and cant do,
  • have nothing to lose by being vocal opponents, or
  • stand to lose the most if the current rules are changed substantially.

The ITU / ICANN Rapprochement

For his part, the ITU’s Secretary General Hamadoun Touré has repeatedly asserted that WCIT is not about Internet Governance, that the ITU can’t and won’t take over the Internet and that it has no desire to interfere with the management of the Internet’s key naming and numbering resources, which are currently managed by The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).  These words are reassuring, as was the love-in between Touré and ICANN’s CEO and President, Fadi Chehade during WCIT’s Opening Ceremony, where both welcomed a “new season” of cooperation and collaboration between the two organisations.

The Chehade- Touré hand-shake deal bodes very well for ICANN. Not only does it pretty much ensure that the roles currently performed by ICANN won’t be harmed by WCIT, but also unofficially boosts the organisation’s status on the global stage. This is a big step – at the 2010 ITU Plenipotentiary in Guadalajara, ITU snubbed ICANN, refused engagement and wouldn’t even mention the organisation by name in its discussions and resolutions. Although I’m only cautiously optimistic about this new cease-fire, it must still be recognised as a win for ICANN.

So, with that assurance and the active opposition of at least some Member States to any Internet-related mission creep, we have nothing to worry about, right? The media and blogosphere have overreacted? Well, not quite.

Internet WILL be on the agenda

With all due respect to Touré, he speaks as the head of the ITU’s secretariat. His views carry weight and power, though final decisions will be left in the hands of Member States. Only the representatives of the ITU’s 193 members will be able to negotiate and decide on the outcomes they would like to see. For all of the ITU’s bluster about openness, transparency and multi-stakeholder engagement, for all the lobbying, community engagement and public education, everyone else will only be able to sit back and watch as the world’s governments decide what is best for us.

More importantly, issues such as network security, spam, fraud, misuse of numbering ranges and new models for charging (sender pays) will be addressed. Quite obviously, these topics apply to the Internet and are the avenues through which Internet-related discussions will get on the agenda. With the advent of IP-based communications, the lines between telecommunications and the Internet become increasingly blurred. In any context, it is becoming harder and harder to discuss one without the other and that will be an active problem here at WCIT.

I’m confused – is there a problem here or not?

There won’t be an overt attack on the way the Internet is governed at WCIT.

It is more likely to be stealth mission that attacks at the edge - a clause here, a word there - that could form the foundation for subtle shifts of power.

So we will painstakingly comb through and debate the meaning of words, decipher and respond to positions we don’t concur with, and attempt to keep the ITRs – and ITU – within the scope originally intended.

It’s not as sexy as a gloves-off, throw-down fight that many are forecasting, but it’s worth paying close attention to nonetheless.

It doesn’t much matter whether the Internet world ends with a bang, or with a whimper…either way isn’t a good outcome….and that’s why we are here.

It’s going to be a fun fortnight.

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