Busting the internet takeover myth

The international conference on internet regulation is off and running in Dubai and taking over the web is certainly not on the agenda.

The World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) has kicked off on a positive note, in stark contrast to the somewhat bitter discussions that took place in the press in recent months. Understandably, there was a significant amount of discussion regarding the comments made in the press over that period.

The lead up to the conference has been littered with a plethora of sensational press articles with many professing the end of internet freedom. While the media scrutiny has been welcomed as an indication of the importance of the internet and telecommunications, International Telecommunication Union (ITU) secretary general Hamadoun Touré, couldn’t resist the temptation to criticise some of the deliberate misinformation that has been spread around before the conference and in particular by entities like Google.

Dr Toure made it quite clear that he was offended by any notions that the ITU had plans to take over the internet and that the rules discussed at WCIT could undermine the freedom of speech. That’s an important step in clarifying some of the points of contention that have dogged the event.

This conference is not about:

  • a takeover of the internet by the UN, ITU or anyone else;
  • an undermining of the freedom of speech; and
  • content control or any of those governance issues.

The conference is about:

  • international telecommunications regulations that have underpinned the global communication system since its inception in 1865.

There are very few people who would claim that the international telecoms network that has been built up over all those years is not extremely useful for our societies and economies; and that it is not worthwhile for this international network to continue along these lines.

And that is basically what this conference is about.

Putting the conspiracies to bed

The decisions that have been made over that time have been based on consensus and that firmly remains the case now. As in any international organisation, any country can come up with ideas, suggestions, proposals. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that such proposals get accepted.

This is the first time an ITU event has received such international public attention, and that shows how important telecommunications has become as critical infrastructure for the rapidly growing digital economy. The degree of interest has taken the ITU by surprise and it has realised it was not prepared for such intense scrutiny. And it will certainly have to urgently address the criticisms regarding lack of transparency, since it is most unlikely that the public interest in its work will diminish when the conference is over.

The conspiracy theories and doomsday scenarios also need to be seen in the context of what is at stake for those involved in the debate:

  • The internet economy is now a trillion dollar-plus industry, and for many companies billions of dollars are at stake.
  • The telcos are seeing their traditional income being eroded and they are experiencing enormous problems transforming themselves and moving to a better position in the market.
  • Countries are beginning to understand that this is no longer just a telecoms issue, and that this national infrastructure is critical for their social and economic development.
  • Telecommunications facilitates the internet, which in turn facilitates the democratisation processes in all sectors of society, including politics and government.

A high stakes game

It is also clear that this will be a much more difficult conference to manage than those which have taken place in the past, especially because of the events preceding it. The last time the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs) were discussed was in 1988 in Melbourne, Australia. During that conference member states were represented by engineers/public servants and  there were just 4.5 million (yes million not billion) mobile users. The world was still largely analogue with the internet just appearing on the horizon. With the stakes now significantly higher, the composition of the delegations has expanded significantly.

Separating the many issues

For WCIT to be successful it will need to start separating the issues and decide what is technical and can be addressed in the ‘usual’ way and what doesn’t fit easily in the ITU agenda. However, with the general public having shown widespread interest in all of the issues, the Secretary General does not want to exclude any of the issue from the debate in Dubai. Once properly debated and analysed it can be decided if the ITU has a role to play, if there are other organisations that are better suited to address these issues and/or if a broader multi-stakeholder approach is needed.

ITU and ICANN working together

One historic moment on the first day of the conference the CEO of ICANN was invited to address the opening session and in a passionate address he embraced cooperation between the two organisations, clearly indicating that these two organisation are complimentary and that neither party had any intention to encroach on each other territory. The Secretary General compared this with roads and cars, distinctly different activities, however closely related and requiring close operation between the two.

ICANN has a critical role to play when it comes to internet governance and it is great to see that this potential is now being fulfilled. Most importantly, this should take some of the sting out of the misconceived notion that the UN/ITU wants to take over the internet.

Security

Another contentious issue is that of cyber-security, where the US is opposed to the ITU taking any role in this, but perhaps this can be resolved through the use of different words. The ITU has clearly stated that it has no role to play in any other issue of security other than ensuring the infrastructure is secure and robust enough to make the network as safe as possible.

Rules for rates

The issue of international charges between operators is of great import to consumer and amid suggestions of a receivers based charging system, its business as usual for the time being. The current system of bilateral arrangements is working well in the developed economies and that will not change. In fact, there has been a call for more emphasis in assisting the developing world to move to such structures. Any extra ‘taxes’ will increase prices and therefore decrease affordability, which is a key issue. However, the developing world will need to develop better policies that will allow them to profit from the social and economic benefits that telecoms and in particular broadband has to offer them. The ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission for Digital Development is showing the way here. Such developments would assist these countries in attracting investments.

This policy stance has been accompanied by a justifiable call for greater transparency so that users know what they are paying for and get a choice to decide between the various offerings. Non-discriminate pricing is another topic that will be discussed. While all of these rules for rates are going to be difficult topics the key here will be to increase the notion of a level playing field.

Connecting the ‘Global Village’

Finally, Dr. Touré has also went out of his way to highlight the importance of the ITU to ensure that all global citizens will be connected to the internet. Two third of the world are not yet connected and it is in everybody’s interest to make that happen and the ITRs can play an important role in this. WCIT should therefore be flexible and open to compromises that will allow this to happen, again this is not just a conference about the developed world looking after its own issues in isolation.

He also clearly wants to ensure that the 650 million people with disabilities are included in the connected world, especially as ICT can play a critical role for them to maximise their participation in society and the economy.

As the issues are many and complex the only way forward for WCIT and the ITU is to build consensus. This should not be a win or lose situation and for that purpose some of the delegations will need to find way to compromise in order to move forward. We will have to wait for another two weeks see if indeed the world is maturing and that compromises can be found in our increasingly thinking – but very diverse– global society.

This is an edited version of a post originally published on December 3. Paul Budde is the managing director of BuddeComm, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy company, which includes 45 national and international researchers in 15 countries.