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An inordinate amount of sensationalism has surrounded this week's World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai. Convened by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), an arm of the UN, WCIT brings together representatives from governments around the world. For the last few days, these representatives have been in closed-door meetings, discussing the future of international telecommunications regulations (ITRs). Media outlets around the world have claimed the ITU is "trying to take over the internet."
An example of this misdirected hysteria comes from an otherwise generally reliable source on internet issues. Google has launched a petition, "Take Action," that vaguely insinuates that the ITU will "increase censorship" and "threaten innovation." There is no detail or explanation of what is actually going on — nor do they mention that representatives from Google are accompanying the United States delegation to WCIT.
Let's step back to think about what the WCIT will actually mean from a pragmatic standpoint. First, a little background. The ITU is an organisation that dates back to the 1860s, and is trying to remain relevant in light of the decline of traditional telecommunications. The goal of the WCIT is to amend the ITRs. The ITRs are a vague set of regulations that set international rules and standards on issues such as interoperability and "special agreements" among telecommunications companies. Governments — either alone or in groups, such as the Arab states — have put forth hundreds of proposals to amend the ITRs. In accordance with a policy that can only be described as stunningly tonedeaf, these proposals were kept secret from the public until an abrupt about-face at the beginning of the conference on December 3.
While many of these proposals are procedural, some are concerning, such as Russia's proposal to transfer responsibility for the assignment of internet names and numbers — which currently falls to the US-based non-profit ICANN — to ITU "member states". Activists are rightly concerned that such an outcome could increase censorship or lead to increased fragmentation of the internet. European network operators have lobbied for provisions that would codify the acceptability of guaranteed quality of service offerings, or internet service that prioritises some packets over others. Arab states have asserted in their proposals that states have the right to know how traffic is routed, which, setting aside concerns about suppression of dissent, may be technically impossible.