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Who controls the internet? The debate is live and clicking

Nations from around the world are currently meeting in Dubai to discuss the future of the internet. Ali Haider/EPA

And so the battle for the future of the internet rages on. The focus this time is not on WikiLeaks, cybercrime treaties, or privacy controls, but the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

The ITU is currently meeting in Dubai under the banner of the World Conference on International Telecommunication (WCIT-12). The agenda is to consider changes to the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITR) – a treaty signed by 178 countries in 1988 to establish principles for the operation of international telecommunications.

Much has been made of the ITU meeting in recent weeks, with more than a few media outlets suggesting WCIT-12 represents a concerted attempt, by the ITU, to seize control of the internet, thereby jeopardising freedom of speech and information.

But is that actually what’s going on? Is the ITU really trying to impose greater controls over the internet?

To answer these questions, we first need to understand what the ITU is and what it does.

Prehistoric regulator

In internet terms, the ITU and the ITR are not only old, but prehistoric. The ITU was formed in 1865 and is responsible for the international co-ordination of telegraph, radio and telephone systems.

The ITR was negotiated in Melbourne in 1988 to bring the regulation of telecommunications into the then-modern era. Of course, this was pre-internet – user-friendly web browsers made the world wide web searchable and accessible in 1993 and the net was opened to general commercial traffic in 1995.

Almost as old as the internet itself are the contests for control over key elements of internet governance.

Europe and the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) have long resented the de facto control the US exercises over the internet. This influence comes through the US’s dominance over key internet bodies such as the:

ICANN is a non-profit incorporated under the laws of California. This was a compromise reached in 1998 when the US-centric nature of domain name allocation became the focus of a dispute between Europe and the US.

The ITU, as a member of the UN Development Group, is regarded by many countries as a more neutral candidate for a regulator of aspects of the internet.

The battle continues

With the proposed revision of the ITR at WCIT-12 battle lines appear to have been drawn again. Interestingly, the US has this time mobilised private actors such as Google to come out swinging against any purported grabs for power by the ITU.

Vint Cerf, one of the engineers who undertook vital early work on the internet – and who is now vice president and an internet evangelist at Google – has made a number of startling allegations regarding the agenda of the WCIT.

These include claims that any moves by the ITU to increase its powers and become involved in internet governance will destroy the internet as we know it.

The internet evolved as an open-ended collaborative platform, despite the fact much of the initial work was undertaken using US Department of Defense funding.

Internet communication was consciously designed to operate in a de-centralised mode, as distinct from the traditional hub-and-spoke model of telephony. This decentralised model of the internet meant if any part of the network was down, the traffic could be re-routed via an alternative pathway.

A decentralised model, of course, means there is an absence of a centralised control or choke point, making the internet difficult – although not impossible – to control from a central point.

The beauty of this design means that the network is essentially dumb – the intelligence and applications are built on at the end point.

This has created the innovative and openness of the internet and distinguishes it from proprietary and closed networks where the intelligence is hosted and controlled in the centre of the network.


Charging for the internet?

So, assuming users implement the relevant protocols (such as TCP/IP) and have the relevant connections, they can be part of the internet. You don’t have to apply to join and you don’t have to pay; you just have to adopt the right standards.

But this lack of payment-to-use is a radically different business model from traditional telephony regulated by the ITU. Under that model, telecommunications are highly regulated, right down to the charging mechanisms for international exchange.

Developing countries (a legitimate concern of the ITU) have expressed some desire for a right to charge to carry commercial internet content.

Developing countries argue they can ill afford to build the necessary internet infrastructure, which will then be used by wealthy (largely US-based) content providers, such as Facebook and YouTube, to disseminate their content.

In this way, it is likely that WCIT-12 will look at potential charging models. And this would explain Google and the US’s concern that the ITU wants to charge you (the user) for the internet. More accurately the ITU would be charging the likes of Google who would then need to consider how those costs may be passed on.


So what does all this mean for WCIT-12? Is it a power-grab by Vladimir Putin as some have claimed?

Certainly the ITU does want to extend the scope of the ITR to expressly include the internet. Up until now the internet has been classified (and regulated) as an information service rather than a telecommunications service. This has allowed greater flexibility for governments regarding regulation and pricing.

And certainly, a leaked version of Russia’s submission to WCIT-12 shows the nation would like to exercise greater control over the internet:

31B 3A.2 Member States shall have equal rights to manage the internet, including in regard to the allotment, assignment and reclamation of internet numbering, naming, addressing and identification resources and to support for the operation and development of basic internet infrastructure.

So what does this really mean?

Well, domestic governments already have significant power to regulate the internet within their own territories, but the above submission would make this ability more explicit and perhaps more “acceptable”.

This may be seen as an attempt by Russia and others to stake a claim to an equal right to manage the internet. But as a practical matter, internet control remains strongly in the hands of private US-based interests, such as Google and Facebook. (Just consider the amount of information these services collect about our personal lives and search histories).

Limiting freedom

As some commentators have already pointed out, there is nothing new or surprising in countries expressing a desire for a more equal say in internet governance. But it is disturbing to those who thought the issue dead and buried with the restructuring of ICANN in 2005.

In the opening days of the WCIT-12 (which runs until next Friday) we’ve already seen that a proposal by the US and Canada to limit the scope of the ITR to telecommunications has been rejected.

But this doesn’t mean the Russian proposals and others like it to expand the powers of the ITU will automatically make it through.

As ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré reminds us, all decisions will be reached by consensus before being voted upon (and implemented) by member countries.

And finally, it’s important to remember that threats to freedom of speech online are as likely to come from the private sector as they are from governments. This is something that’s not reflected in the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech and an issue many commentators would do well to realise.

It might well be that internet freedoms are under attack, but not from the ITU.

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