So the SOPA and PIPA legislation has been postponed in Congress and the Internet will safely remain open and democratic, right? Well, not so fast. There’s another potential danger for regulation, and this time it comes from the United Nations. And while you may not have heard of the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU), some very influential people such as FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell are extremely worried about how the ITU could change the way the Internet functions.
The issue of the ITU was taken on by The Greater Washington DC Chapter of the Internet Society (ISOC-DC) during their meeting on March 21, 2012 entitled, “Who Needs a Global Internet Regulator?” Moderated by Michael R. Nelson, Research Associate at the Leading Edge Forum and an adjunct professor in Georgetown’s Communication, Culture & Technology program, ISOC-DC discussed the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) being convened by the ITU at the end of 2012. Members of ISOC-DC were especially concerned about raising awareness about possible changes to the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) that will be reviewed during the conference.
The ITU is a UN specialized agency that, among other responsibilities, allocates shared global use of radio spectrum and satellite orbits and proclaims a commitment to improving access to information and communication technologies for underserved communities. One of its key priorities is developing standards, or technical requirements, for worldwide systems. According to their website: “Since its inception in 1865, the [ITU] has been brokering industry consensus on the technologies and services that form the backbone of the world’s largest, most interconnected man-made system.”
It’s hard to imagine a world where information can’t effortlessly cross borders. But ten years after the invention of the telegraph, messages had to be transcribed, translated and physically handed over at border outposts. They were then retransmitted over the telegraph network of the neighboring country. The ITU was formed around an agreement of 20 European states to standardize equipment for international interconnection of telegraph networks. After World War II, the newly formed United Nations approved an agreement that formally recognized the International Telecommunications Union as a UN specialized agency.
Under this auspice, the ITU is the custodian of the binding international treaty on standards known as the ITRs. According to its preamble, the ITRs were created by the ITU for “the development of telecommunication services and their most efficient operation while harmonizing the development of facilities for world-wide telecommunications.” The ITRs have not been revised since 1988; a strange thought considering the World Wide Web didn’t exist then.
During the March 12 ISOC-DC meeting, Kathryn O’Brien, Assistant Bureau Chief of the Federal Communications Commission, articulated the U.S. government’s position as being firmly against the addition of Internet services to the existing treaty. As they currently stand, the ITRs primarily deal with high-level principles and do not include technical specifics such as cybersecurity and spam. The U.S. and its corporate partners would like to keep it that way.
However, according to Commissioner McDowell, countries such as China, Russia, and their allies have proposed the following to be considered for international law: subjecting cyber security and data privacy to international control, allowing foreign phone companies to charge fees for “international” Internet traffic, as well as establishing ITU dominion over ICAAN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (which coordinates the .com and .org web addresses of the world).
The ITU plans to have its preliminary report published by June of 2012. This will set the stage for its World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) occurring in Dubai in December 2012. At the moment, most of this is happening under the radar of the mainstream media and most Internet users. Tellingly, there’s no Wikipedia page for the WCIT. U.S. government and corporate interests are already expressing their concern. After June, we will know more clearly whether we have another so-called “battle for the Internet” on our hands.