This article was authored by John C. Tanner, and was originally posted on telecomasia.net.
As you no doubt know, the ITU has plans to update its International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs), which were last updated in 1988, and have since become badly outdated. At the time, most telecom markets were government-controlled monopolies, the internet was a largely academic project funded by DARPA, and mobile phones were mainly things you installed in cars. And they didn't roam.
That's set to change this December in Dubai when the ITU convenes the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), a treaty-level conference in which delegates will aim to modernize the ITRs. But inevitably - the ITU being essentially a branch of the United Nations - there has been much political dithering over how the ITRs should be changed, particularly in terms of internet regulation.
At the center of that debate is the age-old argument about the role of ICANN in overseeing the growth and self-regulation of the internet. Despite being a private company, ICANN has been regularly accused by critics of taking a US-centric approach to the point of protecting US government interests at the expense of everyone else, especially developing markets.
As such, reports have been surfacing for the past year that BRIC countries and others - particularly China and Russia - favor putting ICANN's functions under the control of the ITU, including cybersecurity, data privacy, technical standards and IP address allocations.
Needless to say, the US government is alarmed by the idea. So are people like Vint Cerf, VP and chief internet evangelist at Google and the man who gave us TCP. At a Congressional hearing in May, Cerf stated firmly that 'if there's one thing that we should not do, it is to centralize decision-making power.' Cerf warned that if the WCIT approves proposals that authorize increased ITU and member state control over the internet, it would 'change the foundational structure of the internet that has historically led to unprecedented worldwide innovation and economic growth.'
Which is probably true. The question is how likely an ITU takeover of ICANN is in the first place. The US seems to be treating it as a very real possibility. But ITU secretary-general Hamadoun Toure recently told the BBC that no one has seriously proposed that the ITU take over the internet from ICANN, and that in any case the ITU operates by consensus, making any such proposal very hard to pass.
So the likelihood of ICANN losing control of the internet to the ITU seems somewhat overstated. The problem is that because all of the proposals are secret, there's no way to know for sure, which is unlikely to assuage the critics. In the absence of reliable information, people will believe what they want to believe and fill in the gaps however they want, especially when it comes to political jockeying.
Complicating things is the fact that the WCIT event is for government representatives only. The telecom sector is essentially going to have to trust their reps to update the ITRs in ways that don't inhibit growth - not just in terms of ICANN's future, but a range of other issues, from taxation and net neutrality to roaming and facilitating broadband growth in developing markets.
Which is why Ambassador David Gross, partner at Wiley & Rein, took the time during his 'Visionary Address' keynote at CommunicAsia to urge delegates to get involved in the conversation now by engaging with their respective home governments and explaining the importance of updating the ITRs with a flexible framework to allow innovation to flourish.
It's good advice. By the end of this year, the ITRs will have been changed, and one way or the other, the telecom industry is going to have to live with the results. One other thing: at those Congressional hearings, Vint Cerf admitted ICANN needed improvement, especially in terms of international input and looking after the interests of developing countries. If ICANN retains its role after WCIT, it should do what it can to address those shortcomings.
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