Next week the most important conference you have probably never heard of, the WCIT12, will take place in Dubai. The WCIT12 is the conference of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the body of the United Nations concerned with (amongst other things) standardisation in the telecommunications sector. The conference is so important, because for the first time in ten years the conference will review the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs).
The ITRs are a set of rules on how telecommunications should be governed worldwide. Currently, the ITRs only deal with traditional telecommunication (e.g. voice telephony). A number of governments and other actors however, see the review of the ITRs as an opportunity to try and gain more control over the Internet and have proposed worrying changes to the ITRs.
The most worrying of these proposals is a proposal by Russia to extend the ITRs to include IP-based networks, bringing the running of the Internet wholesale under the auspices of the ITU, and thus national governments. This would enable states, including those with little regard for democratic values and human rights, to gain far greater control over the Internet.
Other proposals concern the right of telecoms operators to charge content providers for the use of their networks. Proposed as a way to ensure an equitable funding of infrastructure development, if adopted these initiatives may have serious ramifications for equality of access. Instantly, those who could not afford to pay for access, or indeed services, would be cut off from the critical infrastructure and the information that powers its innovation.
Both sets of proposals would undermine the essential nature of the web and may jeopardise its future development. Fortunately, European states have agreed not to support the proposals. They will go to WCIT12 and argue that bringing control of the Net under ITU control is not an option. This is also the position of the United States. However, the opposition of Europe and the USA to these proposals may not be enough. The ITU operates on a one member, one vote basis. A simple majority of its members is needed to pass proposals. Whilst the debate seems to be going in Europe’s favour, nothing is certain.
Over the past three decades the Internet has transformed lives in Europe and all over the globe. It has opened up new possibilities for economic activity, innovation, social interaction and democratic participation. Next-generation networks and mobile Internet are opening up even more possibilities. In order to keep the Internet an open channel of communication for vibrant social interaction as well as an engine for economic growth we must ensure that it reflects the values and norms of the European Union, such as trust, safety, security, freedom, innovation, equality, fairness, reciprocity and decency. In my opinion, these values are best served via the current multi-stakeholder model.
It is therefore important that more attention is devoted to this conference and its possible outcomes, even though time is short…