This week in Dubai, the International Telecommunications Union convenes the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). The internet world is watching, because this year the conference is reviewing the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs), which serve as the binding global treaty covering  interconnection and interoperability of information and communication services. The treaty hasn’t been updated since 1988. If this sounds dull, it’s not. This treaty has been the subject of intense interest from internet companies, national governments and civil society over the past two weeks, and the controversy, conflict and public debate have attracted a fair amount of media interest. In this post I’m going to try and review some of this, teasing out who’s participating and why . . . and what this might mean for the future of the internet.

UN Takeover?

Any decision that impacts all of the world’s internet users is a decision about its governance. So who is to make these decisions? Companies can make them, or individual nation-states, but these might only impact some internet users. When it comes to decisions made for ALL, some kind of bigger process needs to be put in place. Most press coverage of the WCIT has focused on concerns that the decision-making about internet operation will move from being the responsibility of a range of organizations to being primarily the responsibility of the ITU, a UN institution. The current patchwork of high-level internet governance institutions includes a US-based private sector, non-profit organization (ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), an open, consensus-based organization charged with agreeing standards and protocols (the Internet Engineering Task Force), and the non-decision making Internet Governance Forums, as well as other organizations and processes. The move to make the ITU fully responsible would mean that nation-states would take more responsibility for governing what is broadly perceived as a global communications resource.

Leaked Russian Plans

The first controversy about the WCIT meetings came when WCITLeaks, a website hosted by George Mason University, leaked a document from the Russian delegation suggesting that the ITU should take control and that member states should have “equal rights to manage the internet”. After coverage by CNet, the Russians revised their proposal (see original and the most recent proposal) to be less dismissive of the internet, but this move still suggests that Russia hopes that the ITU will take more responsibility for the internet and thus let individual nation-states participate more.  Advocates of a global internet are concerned: individual state regulation could lead to political decisions about internet interconnection. In a year where we have seen both Egypt and Syria disconnected from the global internet, the consequences of this are quite obvious.

Google Saves the Day . . . or not?

Not only nation-states want their say at the WCIT table, and big tech companies often come down on the side of less internet regulation, not more. This can put them in the same category as free speech advocates, but it’s not always that simple. Google has raised concerns about the legitimacy of the WCIT conference itself. Not surprisingly, it bemoaned the lack of participation in the ITU conference from “Engineers, companies and people that build and use the Web” according to an online statement. Google has solicited agreement to its statement of principles from internet users (noting that “The name that you give may be published publicly as part of this website and discussion. Your specified country and other location information may be used to display the vibrant conversation across the world. Your email address may be used to send you updates on Internet policy initiatives”). In addition, a consortium of online actors led by the Center for Democracy and Technology has created an online petition at www.protectonlinefreedom.org. These efforts appear to be an attempt to bring the individual voices of internet users into a decision-making forum that is otherwise dominated by the discussion of proposals brought by various states and organizations.  The Google effort, especially, implies that engineers, companies, and web builders are left out of decisions about the internet

Of course, the ITU is not the only forum for participation in internet governance. The IETF, which sets some of the operation standards and protocols for the internet, is open to all, and attended by technical experts. Furthermore, it is not as if internet companies are not represented at the WCIT: the US delegation, led by Terry Kramer, a former technology company executive, includes representatives from Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon. Instead it’s individual internet users who are shut out of negotiations. The petitions and agreements are meant to be one way of representing individual voices. Another way is through the formal channels established by transnational civil society organizations like the Internet Society. The Internet Society has circulated this list of preparations by their member organizations around the world. These preparations are the formal mechanisms through which interested parties (including civil society) are meant to make representation to their negotiators at the conference.  From the list, it’s not easy to tell how many citizen voices make it to the negotiating table.

Rerouting the internet – the end of Net Neutrality?

One of the proposals being considered is a change to interconnection routing mechanisms. The European Telecommunications Network Operator’s Association (ETNO) has proposed including a reference in the International Telecommunications Regulations to new means of charging for internet use called Sending Party Network Pays (SPNP) and end-to-end Quality of Service, which implies routing traffic separately to the existing best-efforts internet. According to the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC), the organization that represents communication regulators, this proposal runs the risk of putting too much power in the hands of telecom carriers, and a return to the kind of business models and charging mechanisms that characterized the telephone age, rather than the “principles of . . . packet-switched networks” of the internet age. Put most simply, ETNO’s proposals seek to undermine the principles of net neutrality, which many agree are an essential part of the internet. BEREC takes issue with these aspects of the proposals, while other organisations, like UNESCO, worry that the proposals are so broadly worded that they risk undermining human rights such as freedom of expression. Combined with the proposals for increased nation-state responsibility for governing the internet, many worry that speaking out will become riskier, especially in countries who repress speech rights.

One of many fights

The controversies and conflicts in the run up to the WCIT demonstrate just how important internet governance has become, and how much is at stake for different people and organizations.  The internet industry trade press – not to mention the New York Times  – express worry that any treaty agreed at the meeting would allow countries to explicitly begin regulating the internet, and even that an un-ratified treaty could “splinter” the current global internet into a variety of networks with incompatible protocols and conflicting rules and governance. For me, the concern over this meeting suggests that regulating the internet is on very many people’s agenda, and that this is just one of many fights.

Officially, the WCIT proposals are not public, but .nxt has released all the documents under discussion. So read for yourself and determine how you think the future of the internet will unfold.