The recent World Conference on International Telecommunications – WCIT 12 – in Dubai on revising the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITR's) ended quite acrimoniously, with 89 countries signing the new ITR's while the US, Canada, EU and Japan walking out.
A number of countries including India have sought time before deciding either way. India particularly was the target of various groups as its “position” was conspicuous by the absence of any position. Unlike others, it abdicated its role as a leader of the developed countries and hid behind platitudes while refusing to take a position on any of the contentious issues. Both South Africa and Brazil, its IBSA partners, have signed the ITR's.
So what was the acrimony about? If the US and its allies are to be believed, there was an attempt by the “enemies of Internet freedom” to hijack the Internet from the existing multi-stakeholder model to one of governmental control using the ITU. The others -- and this includes the bulk of developing countries – is that after agreeing to drop all the contentious clauses, the US and its allies walked out of WCIT when the developing countries wanted a the right of access by countries to the Internet to be inserted in the preamble.
Sure, there were a slew of proposals initially that wanted to increase governmental control over the Internet. They were quite easily shot down and shot down quite early. In any case, ITU and ITR's recognise that countries have full right to control the Internet within their sovereign country space. As various experts have pointed out, governments do not need ITR's to control the Internet or to invade the privacy of their citizens.
We have already written that WCIT 12 is not about Internet freedom as it is being portrayed by the western block of countries working in tandem with a powerful lobby of Internet companies. It is about the future of telecommunications as voice and data communications merge into one. Hitherto, the bulk of telecommunication revenues have been from voice communications. As the existing telecommunications get transformed from the old fashioned Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) for voice telephony into essentially a packet switched network, where both data and voice travel as packets over the existing telecommunications network, who will control the Internet has emerged as the focal point of contention.
For the US, Internet should be entirely market driven and therefore strictly the domain of private companies. According to the US, the governments – at least all other governments -- have no role. The US of course does not need any international governance structure involving nation states for controlling the Internet. It is uniquely placed amongst all nation states as the basic Internet architecture works under a formal contract with the US Department of Commerce. The body that oversees all domain names and IP addresses of the world – ICANN – operates as a successful bidder for these services under a tender of the US Government. While the US is willing to talk about multi-stakeholder involvement in ICANN, the terms of the tender and the control over the DNS root servers remain with the US Department of Commerce. For the rest of the world, particularly the developing countries, if there is no intergovernmental body which can speak about the Internet, this translates to the US and global corporations then dictating to the nation states on all matters concerning the Internet. And as all telecommunications is becoming Internet based, this means that the US and global corporations will control the entire telecommunications structure in the future.
We have already reported that a very powerful lobby consisting of major US corporations – Google, Facebook, AT&T, CISCO, Microsoft, Verizon, etc. – along with the US government has mounted a very well funded and powerful campaign on the “freedom of the Internet” and threat to this “freedom” from the ITU. For the civil society groups, freedom has an obvious resonance and painting the threat as emanating from countries such as Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc., plays into the residual cold war memories as well as the rising Islamophobia in the west.
The US wanted to capitalise on its role as the champion of Internet freedom and human rights and wanted to introduce in the preamble of the ITR's a clause enshrining human rights. This was unanimously accepted but the African block of countries wanted then to add that all countries should have the right to access the Internet. They also gave the example of Sudan, where a number of Internet facilities are not available due to the US sanctions . Though such a preambular position does not bar any country – in this case the US – on imposing rules on US companies providing Internet services, the US saw in this move a danger to the power it has of blocking access by any country by its control over the root Internet servers. From arguing in favour of an unfettered Internet, it – along with its allies – then became an opponent of the right of all countries to access the Internet.
For the developing countries, a global treaty that does not provide a basic right to access the Internet has little meaning. Finally, Iran forced a vote on the clause, which showed that the overwhelming majority of the countries supported this right to access of what is increasingly emerging as the basic telecommunications infrastructure.
The US in WCIT seems to have adopted a strategy that is familiar in similar international negotiations. It first forced the dropping of all clauses that it did not agree with. According the US delegates themselves, they had won 95% of what they were seeking. Having secured what would have been a major victory for the US negotiators, they decided to still walk out of WCIT, raising the suspicion that their strategy from the beginning was to de-legitimise ITU itself rather than a successful ITR.
The arguments that the US gave for walking out of WCIT makes strange reading. It mentioned that bringing network security and spam as two key issues. On network security, the clause 5A is reproduced below:
“Member States shall individually and collectively endeavour to ensure the security and robustness of international telecommunication networks in order to achieve effective use thereof and avoidance of technical harm thereto, as well as the harmonious development of international telecommunication services offered to the public.”
The US conceded that the above clause has only vague commitments but then proceeded to spin it as having “significant implications”. No sane analysis of the above clause can point out how this can be a threat to content, when explicitly a clause exists in the ITR's that it will not address content.
There have been discussions on the issue of spam – how do we distinguish spam from other legitimate communications. The clause 5B now refers to unsolicited bulk electronic communications. We reproduce the clause below:
“Member States should endeavour to take necessary measures to prevent the propagation of unsolicited bulk electronic communications and minimize its impact on international telecommunication services. Member States are encouraged to cooperate in that sense.”
Again, member states including the US regulates spam or “unsolicited bulk mail”. So why a simple statement that countries shall cooperate to minimise what in any case they should be doing should provoke such a response? Particularly as spam now is 50% of all electronic mails and therefore a major threat to all electronic communications.
Finally, the US statement talks about how a non-binding resolution that gives ITU some role on Internet related issues is a threat to multi-stakeholder governance of the Internet. Again, this is quite baffling as a number of unanimous resolutions giving ITU some role on Internet issues have been passed in various UN fora in the past.
There is a difference between ITU grabbing the Internet to keeping ITU out of the Internet. If we read the US statement carefully, the US is really saying that the world should accept that ITU and all UN bodies keep out of the Internet completely. It is not the ITU's goal of “capturing” the net that the US is fighting but its new agenda of “liberating” the Internet from all other control except its own and its corporations.
For the developing countries, and indeed the rest of they world who are not allies of the US, the UN is the only forum where there is multilateralism. For them ITU remains the only body where they can rise issues regarding the Internet.
The problem that the US has is that the Internet operates with the telecommunications network. Without a telecommunications network to carry the data packets, there is no Internet. And ITU is squarely responsible for the global telecommunications network.
If and when we change to Internet based telecommunications as we are gradually doing, it is not just that we will be using the Internet for browsing and emailing. From TV (IPTV) to voice, all services will migrate to the Internet. If we do not have a global agreement in place for this regime, we run the risk of countries being punished by the US through unilateral action and being cut off from the Internet. At present, the US operates through US companies implementing US sanctions; but the power of the US to cut off any country from the Internet exists. Why the US walked out of WCIT is because this power is being challenged, even though in a relatively muted form.
Phil Butler in his review of WCIT collapse, has put the spin and the real issues succinctly (World Telecom Conference [WCIT] Full of More Than Meets the Eye Fodder, December 14, 2012, http://www.searchenginejournal.com/wcit-2012-under-fire-but-why/56480/). I quote below:
“It’s fair to suggest that the spear tip of controversy in Dubai is jabbing, not at freedom for users and reduced controls of the Internet, but rather positioning just “who” actually does control. This is not even at the level of subterfuge, both sides are operating in broad daylight. On the one hand we have a United Nations and governments wanting to run the Internet, and on the other we have the companies that run the Internet. In the middle are the people who pay for it.”