After much promise the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) has ended on a disappointing note, with the treaty on International Telecommunications regulations (ITRs) failing to cross the finish line. Despite spending two weeks to hammer out a deal the final version of the agreement put on the table was not acceptable to 55 countries with the regulation of the internet proving to be the major stumbling block.
The sometimes fractious negotiation saw 1,275 proposals discussed in all and the contentious issues were significantly watered down. However, the dissenting countries felt that the key issue – anything in relation to the internet – should not be included at all and, quite correctly, did not compromise on that.
In the end the internet issues were put into a new article 3A, but there was a very strong feeling among those members that the treaty should not include any regulatory items in relation to the internet, despite the fact that such rules would only have a voluntary status (adherence to the ITU treaty is voluntary not compulsory).
Differing views on what the internet is and is not
Well before the start of the conference there was recognition that the disparate issues should be properly separated and that anything to do with internet content should be left out. A key problem in the USA is that anything internet is classified as content, while the rest of the world categorises the internet in two parts – a content element and an infrastructure element.
Without a proper separation between these two elements reaching a consensus was always going to be difficult. It is also interesting to see that the US was promoting and talking strongly about competition and liberalisation, while at the same time its own national market is one of the least competitive in the developed markets – and all indications are that this market will become even more dominated by two or three vertically-integrated telcos in that country. Obviously their message to the outside world is different from the one they preach at home.
But on issues of security and SPAM control the US and its allies took the correct position and opposed any internationally-regulated interference.
Not a complete washout
Despite the failure of getting the treaty ratified the conference wasn’t an entirely wasted endeavour. According to Bob Horton, a member of the Australian delegation and a co-chairman of WCIT-12, the conference was a success in many ways and the fact that it will not be formally ratified by some countries is not a particularly serious concern.
So far there are some 89 (largely developing) countries who have committed to the compromises that were reached. The agreed text has been significantly modified from the initial ambit positions which came into the conference, on issues of security, naming and addressing, internet governance, CLI, routing information, charging arrangements, SPAM, fraud etc. The wording of the revised text is a great relief even to those countries that have not signed (the final compromise package was a whisker away from total consensus). Those countries that did not sign up can regard the text as a reference manual for behaviour they can expect from signees.
The new text gives us the assessment of the playing field that now exists for the industry, and represents the outcome of a very fruitful exchange of positions on government regulation versus the expectations of free market forces. The ITU Plenipot in 2014 will be a very interesting venue to establish future direction, where the ITU can maintain its role as a forum in telecommunications and adjust to the change which has revealed itself clearly by the WCIT process. Instead of a total focus on regulation any future WCIT may need one week of multi-stakeholder discussion preceding the regulatory discussions and text which might follow in a second week, so that we get the balance right.
What did get through?
In general terms, the treaty sets out principles for ensuring the free flow of information around the world. New provisions in the text place special emphasis on future efforts to assist developing countries, on promoting accessibility to persons with disabilities, and on asserting the right of all people to freedom of expression over ICT networks.
Other new provisions include a resolution to create a single, globally harmonised number for access to emergency services, new text mandating greater transparency in the prices set for mobile roaming, and new provisions to improve the energy efficiency of ICT networks and help combat e-waste.
The issues that provoked what was often very heated debate included network security; unsolicited bulk content such as spam emails; the definition of entities providing services under the terms of the treaty; the principle of non-discriminatory access of countries to each other’s networks; and whether or not to include language on freedom of expression in the Preamble text of the treaty.
The hotly debated issue of ‘taxing the internet’ – the so-called ‘Sender Party Pays’ proposal – never made it into the treaty.
No more consensus?
However, the one big disappointment for Horton was the move, in the instance of the ITRs, to resort to the use of voting. According to Horton, this precipitate action was naive and this approach would ultimately inhibit interest by developed countries in the telecommunications work of the ITU – if they felt they would get rolled on any issue by weight of numbers.
Thus the tactic was unwise and could lead to the demise of the ITU as we know it. However, there is hope that developing countries will come to this realisation. It is a line in the sand which ITU members have known about and respected throughout the history of the ITU. Any reflections on this short-term success should be tempered that the fact that the convention of consensus may now be lost as a primary asset of the ITU.
The future of the ITU, the ITRs and the internet
So what does the WCIT -12 experience mean for the future of international telecoms, since the treaty is voluntary and the countries who declined to sign still dominate the bulk of the traffic that is going over the internet?
The role of the ITU has become more difficult with key countries now not being signatories to the treaty. This is something the ITU cannot, and will not, ignore. Many of the issues discussed that were debated in great detail will now need to be followed up, in line with the clear messages coming out of WCIT-12. The ITU is well-positioned to assist in finding better ways, structures and platforms where these issues can be addressed.
This means that over the next two to five years the ITU needs to come up with better structures and platforms that will allow all member states to feel more comfortable with future treaties and regulations; it will also have to modernise itself, so as to become more transparent. WCIT-12 was a good example of openness and this should now be used to further reform the organisation itself. All members – including those who did not sign the treaty – are still fully committed to the ITU and therefore the agency remains in a very strong position to take these issues beyond WCIT-12.
This is an edited version of a post originally published on December 15. 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.