With debate over the upcoming World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), questions are arising regarding International Telecommunications Union’s (ITU) potential control over the Internet. The conference’s aim is to “consider a review of the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs), which define the general principles for the provision and operation of international telecommunications.” In response to accusations of an impending UN takeover of the Internet, questions and protests began regarding the ITU’s regulatory role and the means by which amendments are made to the ITRs. To combat these accusations, the ITU released a background brief to clarify misconceptions and the secretary general of the ITU gave a speech on the matter.
Despite the attempts to calm fears, Internet activists and journalists are alarmed by the potential regulatory power the ITU could gain following the release of several documents via WCITLeaks, the whistleblowing website spearheaded by two George Mason University researchers. Leaked documents include a key planning document that outlines various proposals from nations. CNET highlights some details from the leak:
China and other repressive governments, well aware of the increasingly important role played by the Internet in popular uprisings around the world, are also looking to WCIT as a golden opportunity to turn off the free flow of information at their borders and introduce U.N.-sanctioned surveillance technologies to spy on Internet communications.
Several proposals in the newly leaked document, for example, would authorize governments to inspect incoming Internet traffic for malware or other evidence of “criminal” activity, opening the door to wide scale, authorized censorship.
Others have come to the summit’s defense explaining that most countries would not endorse proposals to vest control in the ITU, and that what is really at stake is potential revenue from the Internet giants. Eric Pfanner, for the New York Times, explains,
Thus the real conflict is not over governance of the Internet, some analysts say, but over the division of the spoils, with international telecommunications operators trying to use the I.T.U. to extract revenue from American Internet companies.
The likelihood of these proposals passing, however, seems relatively small at the moment. The ITU’s background brief explains that it has no official position on any issue discussed, and that it sees its role as “the democratic meeting place,” where the ICT community decides “cooperatively, what it wants.” Further, the process by which agreement is made is by debate and discussion, and generally not by vote. “Even a handful of dissenters is enough to stop proposals from going through,” said Sarah Parkes, the ITU’s chief of media relations and public information to the Talking Points Memo.
Last Wednesday the ITU further clarified its and the WCIT’s role in a speech from ITU head, Hamadoun Touré. “I do not see how WCIT could set barriers to the free flow of information,” he explained. Ars Technica concludes that the ITU is not interested in curbing free speech online, but “in helping domestic telecommunications operators make boatloads of cash by controlling the flow of content to individual countries.” In other words, the ITU is concerned about the volume of bits, not the content those bits represent. Touré emphasized that censorship and security are not at risk; the discussion surrounds the “interconnection and the flows of funds among carriers attendant upon interconnection agreements.”
The speech focused primarily on the need for “broadband rollout and investment” because revenues are currently “at risk.” Ars Technica writes, “this really is about money.” While this development may allay fears regarding the jurisdiction of the ITU as a regulator of Internet content, it also may open itself up for new criticisms, as Ars Technica points out. Additionally, as the net neutrality debates in the US have demonstrated, there is a thin line between managing bandwidth and managing content.
While debate over the ITU’s aims will probably continue, Touré’s speech filled in some of the much-needed gaps. In addition, he added that he would advocate for more open access to ITU documents, removing the need for sites like WCITLeaks. The summit is scheduled for December 3-14, 2012 in Dubai.