So far the world has survived the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) and the internet has not been taken over by anybody. So, in the end, what was all the fuss about?
Those who have followed me on these issues from the very start – long before the media frenzy on this topic started – would have seen the futility of a sensationalist approach to the topic of internet governance. While understanding the emerging issues is important, the debate also needs to be placed in the right context. I have long advocated closer cooperation between the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and it 's good to see that this has indeed eventuated at WCIT-12.
Another important consideration is to separate the various issues (cyber-security, digital divide) in order to see how they could be best addressed. This is what the first week of WCIT-12 has been all about. However, I did not fully appreciate at that time what would be involved in ‘herding 193 cats’ – the number of countries involved in the ITU – in the same direction.This required some amazing diplomatic skills.
The US/Google scare campaign
The largest scaremongering came from the USA, particularly through campaigns organised by Google; but when it became clear that the internet apocalypse wasn’t going to happen people started to question Google’s own agenda in all of this.
The frenzy was also fuelled by the hard line taken by the US Administration on issues such as ‘the take-over of the internet’. While it was understood that this was part of a posturing strategy it certainly fed the media frenzy in the USA.
What was conveniently left out of these discussions was the fact that proposals made by member states are not the same as policies accepted by the full ITU membership. It was these proposals that were promoted by the attackers as evidence that the end of the world was at hand.
Consensus is building
Now, at the end of the first week of WCIT-12, it is clear that a far more conciliatory approach is being taken by all delegates.
The separation of the issues referred to above did, in fact, take place and the discussion was narrowed down to what WCIT is all about – updating the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs).
There are a few things that I have come to appreciate during the first week of the conference.
First of all, the language used and the definitions involved in the conversation. When you think about it, terms such ‘operating agencies’, ‘security’ and ‘ICT’, cover an extensive variety of concepts and if you want to include them in international treaties you need to be sure that everybody uses the same language.
Another complication is that in different languages, different translations – and often more than one – apply to these concepts. Listening to all the delegates involved in this discussion made me realise how important that is, and that it's not something that can be easily dealt with. Furthermore, some countries have different political agendas – this becomes clear when you listen to the statements made by those countries. Amazingly, people do eventually come together on most of the issues.
Political posturing and diplomacy
The tough stand that countries such as the USA, Canada, Australia and the European Union took on some of the issues played an important part in the overall debate. With the tough talk working to clarify matters and getting the delegates to focus on the right issues.
The end of the first week of talks has seen the US delegation officially declare ‘so far so good’ and this has come as something of a shock to those in the media professing doom and gloom.
How to move beyond WCIT-12
There is one more week to go. But I am prepared to stick my neck out and say that there will most likely be a good outcome.
The ITRs, as they exist since we developed them and put them in place in Melbourne in 1988, enabled the world to create the internet. They will stay, albeit with a little fine tuning, and as proven tools they can, and should, be used by the non-connected or under-connected communities and countries to their own benefit.
As I have been arguing in the UN Broadband Commission and in its discussions with various governments around the world, it is now up to these countries to develop policies and strategies that are aimed at obtaining the social and economic benefits of the hard work that has led to the successful implementation of telecoms infrastructure globally.
Thanks to organisations like the ITU, who have been working on this since 1865, we can make a telephone call to anybody in the world and access the internet from wherever we are. Compare that with the level of standardisation in the IT world, or in any other sector for that matter. There will be few people who would claim that this is not a great thing, so let us make sure we continue along that road.
Once WCIT-12 is brought to a good conclusion we can start looking at how we can assist the under-connected to become part of the global digital economy, so they can start reaping their own social and economic benefits and thus fund the investments for the infrastructure they need.
Governments should perhaps use some of their often extensive USO funds and lucrative spectrum auctions to channel those incomes to national broadband infrastructure, and work together with their industry to develop their own national broadband plans.
The multi-stakeholders platform established at WCIT-12 should have as a priority assisting countries to build up capacity and human skills to make this happen.
Follow-up ITU meetings and conferences over the next few years can take these issues further and help in developing government and industry policies and strategies, as well as business models that will allow these countries to create their own incomes, rather than depending on handouts coming from the ageing international accounting rate structures. Obviously these old structures cannot be demolished overnight; a transitional period is needed and, again, this is where the rest of the world can assist.
This is an edited version of a post originally published on December 7. 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.