Less than two months have passed since the World Conference on International Telecommunication (WCIT) in Dubai came to a halt over a controversial vote that would have extended a UN treaty largely centered around voice telecommunications to the Internet. Critics of the proposed revisions to the International Telecommunication Regulations breathed a bit easier as 55 of the 144 eligible delegations at the UN-sponsored conference failed to endorse Quality-of-Service rules, access fees and other strictures on the open Internet. Even with the remaining 89 member delegations as signatories, the treaty is mostly inert without participation by the US, Japan, European Union members and other nations that demurred.
Unfortunately, the Internet community’s sigh of relief at the Dubai inaction was only a brief respite in a continuing polemic around whether government oversight is a necessary and helpful component in the global Internet’s growth – especially in remote or underserved communities – or whether such regulation would be a toolbox for censorship and coercion.
Fresh comments this week from the UN’s International Telecommunications Union Secretary-General, Dr Hamadoun Touré fueled the debate. The ITU organized the WCIT sessions in December, and Touré’s remarks on Wednesday suggest he and ITU leadership learned little from the dissent that erupted there. “It was disappointing in Dubai to see attempts to derail the conference by those who were persuaded that Internet control was an issue for discussion, when it was not,” he told a working group in Geneva
Some may ask whether Touré was talking perhaps about a different conference. Indeed, PayPal’s Senior Policy Adviser Bill Smith, a member of WCIT’s US delegation, spoke for many when he lamented how the sessions laid bare the “stark contrast between the Internet Community and intergovernmental agencies’ decision making.” He suggested ITU’s opaque, members-only approach to policymaking goes against the values of inclusiveness and transparency that have fueled the Internet’s growth and guided the work other groups like IETF and ICANN.
“Would volunteers spend years of their lives on efforts where decisions are taken by a simple majority of ‘those in the room’ that might result in their work being abandoned? Will investors fund startups that could have a similar fate?” Smith asked in a December post-conference blog post. “The answer to both is clearly no and the events in Dubai demonstrate how very real the potential for just such outcomes is if we cede control of the Internet to an intergovernmental agency.”
Despite weeks of such industry and public feedback, the ITU still seems to suffer from a troubling disconnect. “ITU is clearly a very good place to convene discussions” on the Internet, Touré told his Geneva audience this week.
As always, CCIA remains active in the debate and has joined an influential Informal Expert Group (IEG) that is now reviewing a draft report central to the upcoming World Telecommunication/ICT Policy Forum (WTPF) in Geneva. This is the next big front in the Internet governance debate, and CCIA has asked to participate in the May 14-15 WTPF proceedings themselves.
For the moment, CCIA and other IEG members – including ISOC, ICANN, FCC, British Telecom, PayPal, Verizon, Cisco Systems and other stakeholders – are already finding some problems with the WTPF draft report and will be discussing them at a meeting next week in Geneva. CCIA is grateful to be involved; we see the WCIT talks in Dubai as a near miss for an Internet ecosystem hoping to avoid being hit by damaging regulations, and the threat is still very much alive.