Nothing to see here

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.

So, with all these potentially problematic proposals floating around, why shouldn't we be concerned? First, the secretary-general of the ITU has been clear that any changes to the ITRs will be adopted by "consensus." Finding a broad international consensus on these contentious topics will be difficult, if not impossible meaning it is likely that the actual changes to the ITRs will be mostly procedural amendments. There will be no international consensus on issues of internet governance, pricing or the right to censor, given the deep ideological divides that define these contentious topics.

But here's the real catch: even if major changes to the ITRs are put in place, there is no practical impact. Proposed changes to the ITRs will be treated by each nation as a new treaty that they have the freedom to reject (subject, of course, to differing domestic legal frameworks). Even if a government ratifies changes to the ITRs and goes on to violate them in some way, the ITU lacks an enforcement mechanism. In short, governments will continue to act exactly the same way they acted before this WCIT those that censor the internet retain their sovereign right to do so whether such principles are enshrined in the ITRs or rejected by international consensus.

With this in mind, why has there been much ado about nothing? The ITU has no one to blame but itself. In the run-up to a conference where the ITU is fighting to establish its relevance in the 21st century, they have made themselves out to be villains. The secrecy attached to the proposals has elicited fear that something is happening behind closed doors that will fundamentally change the nature of the internet. The media has attached undue weight to radical proposals and misconstrued the actual power of the ITU. The proposals in Dubai are, in fact, nothing new; the WCIT is merely the latest forum in which nations are airing longstanding concerns.

This isn't to say that the WCIT is meaningless. Leading policymakers and representatives from the private sector are meeting, discussing what the future of the internet will look like and shaping international norms for years to come. Discussions about who will control the internet, censorship, and issues such as net neutrality are underway. It is undoubtedly valuable as a convening forum; establishing open lines of communication between governments and the private sector is a necessary prerequisite to developing enduring internet governance principles. And while governments currently lack veto power over ICANN decisions, the governmental advisory committee that ICANN consults on major decisions could be further emboldened if WCIT talks reveal a growing international consensus that control over ICANN responsibilities should fall within the purview of sovereign nations. But all of this is just part of a larger continuum in the ever-changing world of the internet and how it is run.

So, concerned citizens of the internet, take a deep breath and move along. There's nothing to see here.

The writer is a fellow of information and communications technology policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, US, and a former attorney for Microsoft

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