The ITU, originally formed as an industry association for telegraph operators in the 1800s, has expanded over the years to become a United Nations agency with a membership consisting of nearly 200 countries and more than 700 private organizations. Although only states have votes on the adoption of ITU policy and rules, all members may propose changes.
There have been numerous accusations about secret agendas behind the most significant changes proposed to ITU-T rules which govern wireline communications across the legacy PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network). Despite the fact nearly all such arguments being charged with political rhetoric and grandstanding, most of them are sadly very accurate. Rather than trying to summarize them all here I'm going to highlight the worst of the worst and provide links to more detailed information on each.
We can start with this though. The UN is not trying to take over the Internet. That's not to say that various ITU members are not trying to exert improper regulatory control over it for equally improper reasons. But despite being technically an agency of the UN, the ITU isn't really under their control. In fact the real controlling authority in this case is the 1988 treaty mentioned previously.
The ITU's role in the Internet
ITU Secretary General Hamadoun Toure has claimed that regulation of Internet communication is not an expansion of the agency's authority because their mandate, as mentioned in their own constitution, covers all telecommunication. That's nonsense. The ITU's constitution does, in fact, cover telecommunications but in that context it refers to nothing more than interoperability between international, government regulated PSTN (Publicly Switched Telephone System) networks.
In reality there are basically two goals behind the problematic proposals to expand ITU authority. The first is an attempt by legacy telecom players, including governments with state run telco monopolies, to neutralize market forces to pad their profits. At the same time governments who seek to restrain the flow of information and ideas want to gut the Internet's ability to empower their citizens.
In an opinion piece for Wired last month Toure detailed what their members claim to be aiming for, but even a cursory look at the actual proposals paints a very different picture which mostly boils down to two issues.
Tourre's first point of emphasis was on cybersecurity:
Many authorities around the world already intervene in communications for various reasons – such as preventing the circulation of pornography or extremist propaganda. So a balance must be found between protecting people's privacy and their right to communicate; and between protecting individuals, institutions, and whole economies from criminal activities.
The problem is while many proposals use the word security in their description it's really just an smokescreen for an obvious agenda of filtering and censorship. They come, not surprisingly, from member states like China and Russia whose attempts to control the free flow of information and communication both through and within their borders are well known. Others originated in regions like the Middle East where social networking has been instrumental in toppling regimes.
Take, for example, Egypt's contribution to the 'security' question (via the Center for Democracy & Technology):
There must be transparency of the routes: on request, Member States must be able to know the routes used, in particular to avoid fraud and to maintain national security. If the [Member State] does [not] have the right to know or select the route in certain circumstances (e.g. for Security reasons), then the only alternative left is to block traffic from such destinations, which is neither logical nor desirable!
That's not security. It's censorship.
Toure also claimed ITU members were focusing on expanding Internet service to reach more of the world:
The conference will also focus on how ICTs – and particularly broadband – can be highly effective catalysts for sustainable social and economic progress.
Right now, access to this potential is constrained by issues of affordability, with high costs a reality for many users. Related to this is insufficient investment in infrastructure, especially in developing countries.
In reality the big push for revenue is coming from ETNO (the European Telecommunications Network Operators Association), representing the highly profitable European telecom industry. It's nothing more than a demand that others pay for future network upgrades (download full document from WCITLeaks.org):
Operating Agencies shall endeavour to provide sufficient telecommunications facilities to meet requirements of and demand for international telecommunication services. For this purpose, and to ensure an adequate return on investment in high bandwidth infrastructures, operating agencies shall negotiate commercial agreements to achieve a sustainable system of fair compensation for telecommunications services and, where appropriate, respecting the principle of sending party network pays.
In plain English this is nothing more than a rehash of the tired argument ISPs have been making for decades about how companies like Google and Netflix are getting a free ride on their networks. It's just as nonsensical now as it has always been. Without the billions of dollars spent annually developing, deploying, and maintaining search engines, media delivery, cloud storage, and numerous other services ISPs would have no customers for their broadband offerings to begin with.
What ETNO is proposing is essentially to shoehorn Internet traffic into a 20th century PSTN model where every hop a packet takes across any network can be metered, measured, and billed to the originating network in order to pad telco profits. If Deutsche Telekom needs to upgrade their infrastructure maybe they should have invested the 480 million euros in profit they declared for the first three months of this year.
And we need the ITU why?
The real question here isn't whether these proposals will be adopted. They won't. In fact it's entirely possible not a single modification to existing rules or recommendations will come out of the WCIT conference because it would require unanimous support from all countries.
What you should be asking is whether it's time to put the ITU out to pasture. They don't necessarily need to disappear entirely. They could simply return to their roots as a standards body for infrastructure providers. Given their almost non-existent role in building the Internet as we know it today, though, it's hard to see any reason to give them control over its future.
Written by: Rich Fiscus @ 4 Dec 2012 23:00