I’m about to leave for Dubai as part of the Canadian delegation to the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12).
You’ve undoubtedly heard of this meeting – it has been receiving an incredible amount of attention in the mainstream media and online. There has been a phenomenal amount of activity on Twitter about WCIT-12, and it has been the topic of many conversations in the Internet governance world, both at the table and in the hallway, for the past six months.
In fact, my last blog post was about a campaign I am endorsing called ‘Stop the Net Grab’. This initiative opposes certain proposals to the WCIT-12 that would see the ITU regulate the Internet’s quality of service, billing settlement and security.
‘Stop the Net Grab’ isn’t the only campaign to oppose any proposals that would see the ITU have increased influence or control over the Internet. As I write this, nearly 40,000 individuals from over 180 countries, as well as more than 1,500 organizations, had signed the Statement to Protect Global Internet Freedom. This grassroots effort is founded on the principle that “Internet governance decisions should be made in a transparent manner with genuine multistakeholder participation from civil society, governments, and the private sector.”
It’s the first meeting in 25 years to revisit the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs), the regulations that govern and standardize telecommunications activities globally and there are many people and organizations who are opposed to having any part of the Internet put under the control of the ITU. Their reasons are many and varied. I tend to fall in this category as well, and I’d like to take this opportunity to explain why.
The ITRs will be opened and explored with an eye to updating them. Let’s be frank, this is fundamentally a good thing. It’s time some standards and regulations were established around mobile, especially in terms of roaming, for example. The ITU does some very good and important work.
The fact is, however, there are some member states who would like to take this opportunity to further their own agendas. The ITU’s membership is comprised of nation states, many of whom are representatives from nationalized telecommunications organizations.
It’s what some of those representatives want that concerns me the most. Some of them would like to profit from the growing Internet traffic (which, by the way, is growing at the expense of traditional telephone traffic).
However, the impact of putting a traditional telecom model on the Internet is incredibly problematic. To profit from Internet traffic would mean putting in place a mechanism to measure traffic. This is reasonably easy in the telecom world. Telephone calls are point to point – one person calls another, there’s a toll booth in the middle, and the caller gets billed. It’s called the sender pays model, and has been very successful in the telephony world.
The Internet doesn’t work that way. When you send an email or access a website, you are not making a point to point connection. Information sent over the Internet is broken into many individual packets of information, and it could take just as many paths to reach its destination.
We have developed this info-graphic to help explain how these two models for information traffic compare:
I have another reason for opposing some kind of sender pays model on the Internet. Some of these telecom guys have a much more nefarious reason for wanting to put some level of control over Internet traffic. Think about the number of countries which do not have a strong commitment to human rights and democracy, and you can get a pretty good idea of how much of the global Internet traffic could come under significant surveillance.
Once you put in place a mechanism that measure traffic, it’s pretty easy to adapt it to monitor traffic as well. All of a sudden, the Internet as a democratizing force no longer exists.
Truth is, the ITU is not a bad organization. And, much of the work it does is for the betterment of our global society. However, it is only as good as its members, and if enough of them decide to implement a particular course of action, the rest of us are unable to do anything about it.
Here’s the facts: the ITU has to come out with something at the end of this meeting. It is inconceivable that an organization as venerable as the ITU could bring together thousands of delegates from nearly 200 countries for the first time in 25 years, and not have a tangible outcome. I’m sure that in the UN community, that would be rather embarrassing. So, we can definitely expect something; let’s just hope it doesn’t jeopardize the global Internet.
Because this is a closed, treaty-based meeting – and the fact there is 9 hours difference between Ottawa and Dubai – I will be limited in my communications. This blog and likely my Twitter account will have limited activity, but I do encourage you to follow the conference online and via the Twitter hashtag #WCIT12. I will blog about the experience and the discussions when I return home.