Today, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is convening the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai (WCIT-12). This conference will review the current International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs), which are essentially global treaties on international telephone and radio communications. The last major revisions to the ITRs occurred in 1988 long before the rise of the commercial Internet.
For the past couple of months, I have been following the ITU process leading up to the WCIT conference in Dubai with great interest. Being a relatively new issue to me, I spent significant time researching and learning about the process. That research has revealed a divided debate over who should control and regulate the Internet. Therefore, I wanted to share my thoughts on the Dubai conference that is getting underway, and what the Internet infrastructure industry can do to make their voices heard in this important process.
The ITU is a 150 year old governing body within the United Nations originally charged with regulating telegraph communications between countries. As telecommunications have modernized, the ITU has shaped how many countries interact with one another. A major discussion point of the Dubai conference will be on global Internet governance and how to update the ITRs to make sense in a post-Internet world. Expect broad disagreement between countries on whether or not the Internet falls within the regulatory domain of the ITU. Its harshest critics say that not only should the ITU not be working on the Internet, but that the ITU should no longer exist. They assert that the ITU’s approach to the Internet is simply irrelevant in an era in which telecommunications have no boundaries or borders. They also assert that existing multi-stakeholder models of global Internet governance are succeeding, and should be bolstered rather than abandoned or usurped.
In advance of WCIT, ITU Secretary General Dr. Hamadoun Touré has been attempting to make the case that the ITU should direct the global Internet because it would be more proactive in assisting developing nations onboarding new telecommunications than existing Internet governing bodies – particularly ICANN (but also WWWC, IETF, ISOC and others). Those who seek to expand the ITU’s role are attempting to leverage that belief to try and show that the ITU can do a better job bringing the developing world online if it is empowered to do so through global treaty.
I couldn’t disagree more. I am a firm believer in the multi-stakeholder model used by ICANN and others to govern the Internet. I am familiar with criticism of ICANN not bringing people who are not yet stakeholders to the table proactively, but I also see that changing dramatically. Evidence of that abounds in the agenda of new ICANN President and CEO Fadi Chehadé as well as in the Africa outreach project kicked off at the most recent ICANN meeting in Toronto, which I was pleased to attend in person.
The multi-stakeholder model of global Internet governance is a methodical process that brings the tech community, industry, civil society, and government together to make deliberately slow, progressive progress on how the Internet should be operated. The ITU process involves bureaucrats meeting, and updating their treaties after 24 year droughts, to attempt to make broad, sweeping generalizations about cybersecurity, Internet openness, and SPAM in a way that is somehow supposed to last. The Internet continues to evolve rapidly, and will always be far more complicated than the ‘telephone model’ that some ITR proposals seek to try to make it conform to. The Internet is not a “series of tubes,” and cannot effectively be governed as if it is one.
What to Expect?
Being that the WCIT is a treaty conference, participating countries will be presenting ITRs for possible adoption. For example, proposals from the Russian Federation and The Arab States are seeking government control over Internet numbering and domains. The U.S. and other industrialized nations are supporting proposals that ensure an open and free Internet claiming the current status quo promotes tremendous economic and societal benefits. I have had the pleasure of meeting with U.S. ITU Ambassador Terry Kramer on multiple occasions, and am pleased to say that his message of the importance of the multi-stakeholder system and maintaining liberalized markets is something I wholeheartedly agree with. He carries the best interests of the Internet infrastructure industry with him to Dubai.
Much of the negotiation process at WCIT will be an attempt to build consensus around one or more of the proposed ITRs. Some criticize this process by claiming that the ITU is attempting to “take over the Internet.” The reality of the situation is that it all depends on which proposed ITR you are looking at. Indeed, many of the ITRs propose changes to the way the open Internet works today. It is important to understand the impact of what will and will not change should one or more of those dramatic proposals pass. While the impact of a restrictive ITR would not immediately change how most industrialized nations operate the Internet, allowing the ITU to exert influence over the Internet at all would have dramatic long-term effects the breadth of which are immeasurable and potentially lethal to the Internet as it works today. Our firm belief is that any activity by the ITU outside of its telecommunication authority is an attempt to take control of the Internet. While the ITU may have some authority over the telecommunications aspects of the Internet – only to the extent that a particular telecommunications company is currently within the ITU’s jurisdiction – that jurisdiction doesn’t extend to the Internet as a whole.
No matter what transpires at WCIT-12, nations will continue to operate in the way that we feel is best for the local and world economy and all of their people. Current multi-stakeholder bodies would remain intact and would not fall to immediate irrelevancy. However, in many developing nations, whatever ITR amendments pass will likely be adopted as their policy on the Internet. In areas where the Internet has not yet taken hold, it is likely they will look to the ITU for how to do it. What’s being decided in Dubai at WCIT-12 will most directly affected areas that have low to no Internet connectivity today. These people do not have time or resources often to build their own Internet policy, so they look to the ITU who they have trusted in the past.
Right now the Internet is global and it is open. The risk is that when the next wave of countries adopts their Internet strategies, they will be closed, restrictive, and in many cases government-operated. This will be a real blow to what has made the Internet most successful as both an engine for economic and social empowerment. In addition to that, if restrictive ITRs are passed, there is a potential for drastic changes for moving traffic across the Internet into emerging and developing markets. Therefore, the stakes are high for Internet network operators no matter where they are based around the globe.
Our challenge is to figure out how to build broad consensus and support for the U.S. message and vision for the Internet so that it continues to be open and free to all especially in emerging or underdeveloped markets.
When most people think of the Internet they think of their cable providers and maybe Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple. The truth is that there are tens of thousands of companies who build the Internet on a daily basis and most of them are small to medium business. I am Chairman of an organization, the Internet Infrastructure Coalition (i2Coalition), which supports the trailblazing enterprises that make significant private investments and drive innovation for the “nuts and bolts” of the Internet – including web hosting and data center providers, registries and registrars, software and service delivery and cloud computing services.
Because our companies are generally not well known entities, the economic opportunities we represent are not always obvious. The Internet infrastructure industry generated and estimated direct $46 billion in annual revenue in 2010 with expected 20 percent growth by 2013. However, our indirect impacts far exceeded our direct ones. Our companies are the ones who help new businesses get off the ground. Our businesses directly impact and empower both world and local economies. Our companies are the ones who aid individuals in getting their information out and their voices head. I am confident that if developing nations better understood that businesses like ours were the foundations of the open Internet they would better understand how maintaining liberalized markets is the best way to continue the Internet’s growth and outreach. It is a little known fact, but the Internet is mostly small and local. Our companies are proof of that.
The Internet has brought nations and people closer together, and been a good thing for the world. The Internet has succeeded because connectivity and infrastructure have been driven worldwide, and this has clearly been a direct result of competition between carriers, transparency, regulatory independence, and the evolution of networks. I live in Northern Virginia, which 15 years ago was the central hub to 60 percent of the world’s Internet traffic. Global openness has made that a thing of the past. The Internet continues to expand to regions who have never seen it before, and it is as a result of the continually improving status quo – driven by innovative small businesses like the ones that i2Coalition represents.
How You Can Help
i2Coalition strongly supports the work of the Internet Society (ISOC) and their brilliant work leading up to the WCIT. i2Coalition’s business interests align with their civil society interests, and bolster their positions on WCIT by showing in real-world, market-based approaches how well the status quo can work, not just for big business but for all. We want to be a source of inspiration for developing nations. We seek their entrepreneurs to join the ranks of small businesses that operate the “nuts and bolts” of the Internet and drive the digital economy.
The Dubai conference is one country, one vote. Our U.S. members can take comfort in the fact that the U.S. Ambassador is pushing to protect our best interests around the globe. It is crucial that our international friends in the Internet infrastructure community contact their ITU representatives as quickly as possible to let it be known that they support an open and free Internet as well. Make your voice heard in this conversation, and speak out now.
I encourage everybody to follow ISOC, and use them as an additional source as they continue to be a conduit for what is happening at the WCIT. As a WCIT participant, they see potentially positive things that could come out of the ITU conference, and some dramatically negative ones. The ITRs are woefully out of date, and one could see an updating to reflect modern networks. They, along with Ambassador Kremer’s U.S. delegation and other like-minded WCIT delegates, will be busy fighting for the continued freedom of the open Internet worldwide.
Though I will not be going to Dubai for the conference, I have talked to the U.S. State Department and have secured a place on the “home team.” I will be getting regular updates on the WCIT negotiations, and I will keep you informed as things progress. I’ve already received my first update from Ambassador Kremer and his staff and will be in touch as the conference continues.