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A simple guide to the ITU's World Conference on International Telecommunications

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  • A simple guide to the ITU's World Conference on International Telecommunications

    By Olivia Solon

    There have been murmurings of dissent about the UN's International Telecommunications Union gathering in December -- called the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) -- which aims to review the regulations affecting the telecommunications sector which were first agreed in 1988.

    Google has spoken out against the Conference, saying that it is worried that it could increase web censorship and threaten innovation. There are particular concerns over proposals to allow telecommunications companies tax internet usage and track all packets of data as well as the fact that it has been hard to gain access to all of the documentation, meaning the ITU has been accused of being secretive. Having spoken to the ITU, concerned parties and members from the UK delegation, has created a simple guide (as simple as you can make issues relating to a highly bureaucratic, acronym-loving, politically-charged inter-governmental organisation) to help you understand what the ITU is, what is being proposed at the meeting and why internet rights activists are concerned.

    What is the ITU?
    The International Telecommunication Union is a specialised agency of the United Nations, headquartered in Geneva, which is responsible for information technologies. It works to establish worldwide standards, coordinate shared global use of the radio spectrum and improve telecommunications infrastructure. It was first set up in 1865 as the "International Telegraph Union" and is the oldest existing international organisation. Its membership is formed of government representatives from 193 Member States and 700 private organisations.

    What is the point of the World Conference on International Telecommunications?
    The ITU is holding a World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai in December in order to bring together government regulators from around the world to renegotiate the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) first signed in 1988 at the anachronistically-named World Administrative Telegraph and Telephone Conference. At that time there were very few countries with a liberalised market -- most operators were monopoly regimes, under government or state control. The ITRs set out principles for ensuring that networks can connect with each other smoothly and that international services are offered in a fair and efficient manner. There are provisions for things like giving priority to emergency telecommunications and how to calculate the charges for traffic exchanged between carriers in different countries.

    Since 1988, the telecommunications landscape has changed dramatically with the widespread adoption of the web and the associated increase in data volumes. As a result the ITU wants to put in place some new internet governance rules. It will discuss proposals submitted from countries around the world with a view to vote to adopt a new set of ITRs. Only governments can vote, with each government receiving just one vote.

    Should an organisation set up to deal with telephony have a mandate over data networks and the web?
    More than 100 organisations have raised concerns about the ITU event. Some -- including Google -- argue that the ITU's charter is for telecommunications only and as such should not have any jurisdiction over the web. They believe it has managed to grow in a bottom-up, distributed manner and doesn't need government intervention. It should stick to. The ITU argues that it defines telecommunications as "any transmission, emission or reception of signs, signals, writing, images and sounds or intelligence of any nature by wired, radio, optical or other electromagnetic systems", which implies that the internet might also be covered.

    Has it been organised in secret?
    Contrary to what Google says in its Take Action campaign, the WCIT event hasn't been organised in secret. However, it hasn't been 100 percent open or accessible. The proposals that countries submit for discussion are all behind a log-in, accessible only by ITU members and not to members of the public, web companies (that aren't already members) and internet rights activists. It is up to members of the ITU to share them if they wish; a site called Dot NXT has published all of the documents. The ITU recognises that it needs to be more open with its processes.

    What are the main areas up for discussion at the conference?
    Some 124 input documents have been submitted by the ITU membership and there are more than 450 proposals under consideration. The ITU has revealed some priority topics for the conference which sound fairly innocuous, such as cybersecurity, financing new infrastructure in developing markets and accessibility. There are also issues such as helping to prevent the "bill shock" associated with mobile roaming through transparency and price caps, preventing mobile operator fraud.

    What are critics worried about?
    There are five main things that critics are concerned about:

    1. That the ITU has extended its remit unjustifiably
    People -- including Vint Cerf -- are worried that the ITU is trying to dramatically expand its influence over things related to the internet. They believe it should stick to regulating telecommunications and has no place in meddling with the web, particularly with regards to security and spam, which could lead to censorship or control of the web. They argue that the ITU was originally set up to coordinate the interconnection of telecommunication systems at a time when they were mostly government-run. However the internet (and its interconnections) has grown through private negotiations and as such doesn't need intergovernmental regulations. The ITU argues that no proposals give them any additional powers, rights or roles and that those rumours are propagated by those "afraid of the financial implications" of some of the other proposals (such as suggestions to make web content giants pay to use telcos' networks (see below)).

    2. That the ITU is not as neutral as it says it is
    The ITU insists that it doesn't have its own agenda and it is simply convening governments to decide matters amongst themselves. However, some argue that the ITU does have its own agenda, as evidenced by statements made by the organisation's Secretary-General Hamadoun Toure. He has spoken out about the fact that many countries around the world already censor content and that a balance "must be found" between protecting people's privacy and their right to communicate and between protecting individuals, institutions and whole economies from criminal activities. This implies that the ITU somehow has a responsibility for the security of the net, rather than simply creating the forum to discuss whether or not it should.

    3. The lack of multi-stakeholder approach
    A major worry is the fact that only governments get to vote. Delegations from each country can include private companies (the likes of Google, Cisco and mobile operators are all represented) but ultimately each country only gets one vote. Many web companies, engineers and digital citizens believe that they should be able to have a say on anything that involves the regulation of the internet.

    4. The fact that there are some radical proposals to control the internet
    There are lots of radical proposals from countries associated with stringent web regimes, who seem to be the biggest supporters of ITU. Russia, for example, has a proposal that seeks to transfer power of managing national internet domain names from ICANN to national governments. Other proposals concern imposing new rules on spam. However, this requires defining what sort of content is and is not allowed which could have an impact on freedom of expression.

    5. That some of the proposals may rule out net neutrality
    The ITU is considering strategies to help share revenues more "fairly". This is largely driven by a trade association of European telephone companies known as ETNO, which is keen to make content companies such as Google, Facebook, and YouTube pay a "traffic tax" to access telecommunications networks to distribute their content -- i.e. pay local telecommunications companies to allow users in different countries to access their content. The worry is that a two-tiered system like this which uses the same network infrastructure would always give priority to the paid-for service -- thus ruling out net neutrality.

    Are any of the radical proposals likely to be approved?
    No. In order for a proposal to become a regulation it requires a consensus or a vast majority. Any controversial proposal that polarises people will likely be argued down, diluted or outvoted.

    What are member states likely to agree on?
    It's hard to say conclusively but there are a number of non-controversial proposals that many countries already seem to agree on. These include:

    1. Increasing accessibility of the web for those with disabilities
    2. Prioritising the delivery of communications relating to emergency services
    3. Increasing transparency around mobile roaming charges. There are also proposals to introduce caps on mobile roaming fees -- something the EU has already agreed on -- but these are unlikely to be agreed at the event as there are too many powerful lobbying telco operators
    4. Calling for technical measures to improve network interoperability and reduce fraud involving hijacking of telephone numbers
    5. There may be some very limp regulation relating to combatting spam, which may end up being something like "member states should cooperate to combat spam"

    Do the ITRs have any teeth?
    No. The ITU has no enforcement mechanism. Treaties do count as international law and states are bound to observe them. But apart from some exceptions such as WTO, there are no enforcement mechanisms if states do not observe them.

    Will the new ITRs lead to more censorship?
    It's unlikely, particularly as Article 19 of the Declaration of Human Rights -- ensuring freedom of speech -- supercedes any of the ITRs. Despite this, there are already 42 countries that censor or control the web in some way already and they are likely to continue to do so. Any decisions made at the conference will have to be implemented by local law anyway in order to take effect.

    So all in all, what is likely to change?
    Despite the fears of companies such as Google, very little is likely to change. But as Googler Tim Bray writes on his Google Plus page:

    "A few months ago, I'd thought that the ITU folks could be safely ignored, there was going to be no power-grab for the internet steering wheel or, if there was one, it would have no meaningful support.
    But recently, smart people here at Google are actually looking worried, and asking us to pass the word along. I still find it hard to believe this could get any momentum, but I'd sure hate to wake up one morning and find out I'd been wrong. Seems like now would be a good time to make some noise."

    If you want to read all of the proposals, they have been published on

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