The struggle of the powers-that-be to get a grip on the most disruptive information technology since the invention of the printing press continues to go on. This time it’s the United Nations making an attempt to get regulatory control over the Internet.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a United Nations body, convenes at the World Conference of International Telecommunications  (WCIT) in Dubai, 3– 14 December. The aim of the conference is to renegotiate the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs), which were adopted in 1988 in Melbourne.

Together ITRs form a binding treaty for the 193 member states of the ITU. In its current form the treaty only covers telephone, television and radio networks, but now several members are proposing to broaden its scope to include the Internet. If the folks gathering in Dubai agree on this, it would extend government control over the Internet. Pushing back the decentralized, tech-minded, solution-driven coordination that made the Net what it is today.

So. In Dubai the UN will decide if the UN should get control over the Internet. Should it decide in favor of itself the next question it will ask itself is what it should do with its newly gained power. There are many proposals ranging from changing the way the Internet operates to regulating content.

Iran and Russia propose to define the Internet as a ‘international telecommunication service’. As a consequence internet traffic would be billed the same way as international phone calls: paying extra for your data crossing a border.

The proposal of ETNO, a trade organization representing European network operators, exposes a similar nostalgia for the good old days of the telephone. They want to see the implementation of a ‘sending party network pays’ model. This would mean a drastic departure from how data is trafficked now. The Internet is a network of networks that voluntarily connect with each other. The exchange of data takes place based on ‘settlement-free peering’, meaning the networks don’t charge each other for data traveling through their wires. And in most cases no one even keeps count of how much data originates from a particular network.

Besides architectural changes to the networks implied in the proposal it would also affect the spirit of the Internet. Companies with huge data streams like Google or Facebook may decide not to make their content available to certain groups or areas because they expect a negative return on investment.

There is a proposal to define spam as ‘causing harm to the network or personnel’. Consequently member states should actively prevent it. With this proposal the ITU crosses the line from a hardware regulator ensuring interoperability and harmonization to an agency regulating content. The USA objects to the proposal saying: ‘this text suggests that the ITU has a role in content related issues. We do not believe it does’.

Equally, the proposal against online crimes point towards a broadening of the scope from hardware to content regulations.

Lack of transparency
More generally, it can be expected UN-regulations will lead to a bureaucratic lockdown of the technology’s development. Innovation is moving so fast, no one can anticipate the next iteration of the Internet. Let alone a sluggish institution like the ITU keeping up regulatory-wise.

Another concern is the lack of transparency. None of the proposals or working papers that will be treated at the conference have been made public. Even something as general as the agenda is behind a wall requiring a password. Much of the information available has come through, a site dedicated to bring transparency to WCIT by making leaked documents available online.

The next two weeks will be yet another decisive episode for the future of the Internet.


Image: source