Despite the protestations of ITU Secretary General Dr. Hamadoun Touré, revising the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs) at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai earlier this month was always going to be about the extent of governments’ control of the Internet. In the face of a sharp divide, the conference effectively kicked the contentious issues into touch. Only to be played again in 2013 and the coming years.
Many governments consider controlling the Internet- both the content as well as the network resources- of critical importance. Clearly the 89 countries that signed the new ITR agreement backed greater government control over the Internet. For most, that was the intent. For others, such as some African countries, it was merely a side effect of benefiting from continued assistance from the ITU. There will be some more countries from the 55 that did not sign that will eventually do so. They too are firmly in the greater control camp.
On the other hand, the US was prominent in pushing hard for limiting government control saying, “the United States continues to believe that Internet policy must be multi-stakeholder driven. Internet policy should not be determined by member states but by citizens, communities, and broader society, and such consultation from the private sector and civil society is paramount. This has not happened here.”
Others, including the UK, Canada and Australia are similarly minded. New Zealand too expressed opposition to signing the revised agreement with ICT Minister Amy Adams saying, “The Government considers that the proposed changes are unhelpful, unwarranted, and represent a significant threat to innovation and free and open debate that the internet fosters.”
One silver lining is that the worst of the ITR proposals were not included in the final agreement. Such as legitimising government shutdowns of communication networks in order to preserve national security or “public order”. The term “Internet” does not appear in the ITRs itself but only in a non-binding resolution. It’s not clear whether these positives were governments truly pulling back or just the positive offshoot from negotiations with the US and other holdouts.
Another positive is an amendment to the Preamble that requires member states to “affirm their commitment to implement these Regulations in a manner that respects and upholds their human rights obligations.” Score one for human rights but, because this was passed by a vote rather than consensus, it marked the end of the consensus-only promise of the ITU Secretary General. A new provision was also added to promote access for persons with disabilities to international telecommunication services.
Finally, a resolution was adopted to establish special measures for landlocked developing countries and small island developing states for access to international optical fibre networks. The latter has particular relevance to our Pacific Islands neighbours. Maybe we could have used this to lobby the New Zealand Government in Pacific Fibre v2. Some would indeed describe us as a “small island developing state”.
What happens now?
Immediately, nothing will change. China will continue to pour in mind-boggling technical, human, legal, and political resources in controlling what their citizens do on the Internet. Countries like Syria and Egypt will drop off the global Internet when their governments feel threatened by their own citizens. They will probably claim a greater degree of legitimacy for their actions once the revised ITRs come into force in January 2015.
Russia and India will probably continue to push for greater control over domain names, addresses, and other key engineering resources. India, in particular, carries a deep resentment of perceived inequities in IPv4 address allocation and no amount of pointing to the almost infinite IPv6 numbering space will satisfy them. On the other hand, if anything, the US grip on IANA will remain iron tight. It’s resolve to never relinquish reserve control of these functions will only deepen and other countries, including New Zealand, will support this as the least worst option.
The proposal from ETNO for a “sending party pays” business model is probably dead. In the end, rather than support from European governments (some of whom are shareholders in ETNO member organisations), it was pushed at WCIT unsuccessfully by African governments searching for new revenue to replace declining legacy telco rents.
Countries that went to Dubai looking for improvements to traditional telco regulations in the current ITRs must be dismayed. Caught by the divide over the Internet, WCIT failed to deliver them much needed progress and global consensus in areas that are vital to them. Traditional telco areas, those that ITU should concentrate on, are now hostage to the bigger question of government control of the Internet.
Skirmishes will continue at every future ITU meeting (such as the World Telecommunications Policy Forum (WTPF) in May 2013 in Geneva which is explicitly about the Internet and ICTs and UNESCO’s WSIS+10 review meeting in February 2013) and at every “multi-stakeholder” meeting. There will be several attempts to bridge the divide, including by the ITU and ICANN, without success.
The core issue remains unresolvable
I cannot see any way how the core issue of the extent of governments’ control over the Internet can be bridged. The divide is simply at too fundamental a level. In one camp is sovereignty while in the other is human rights and innovation. Even if the ITU sinks into irrelevance as looks likely, the fundamental difference over control will continue. This difference is one of degree. After all, within their own borders, countries like the US, UK and even New Zealand continue to debate “legitimate” control over the Internet.
Even though it is about degrees and a dichotomy between national and international actions, I am pessimistic. It’s hard not to see the only long-term solution being the split of a single, global Internet into many internets.
Illustration by Vladimir Radunovic