WCIT-12 ends in fear, loathing and confusion

December 20th, 2012 by · Leave a Comment

This article was authored by John C. Tanner, and was originally posted on telecomasia.net.

The controversial World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) to update the 1988 International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) ended in Dubai on Friday. The good news: the ITU did not take over the internet as many groups feared. The bad news: the telecoms sector now potentially has two competing international regulatory frameworks on its hands.

After much dithering and controversy during the two-week conference, the final outcome was a 30-page document titled “Final Acts” [PDF].

Among other things, the revised treaty includes a resolution to create a universal number for emergency services, a mandate for greater transparency in mobile roaming prices, provisions to improve the energy efficiency of ICT networks, and new wording to make it easier for landlocked countries and certain island states to connect to international fiber-optic networks. (One thing it doesn’t include is the proposed “sender-party-network-pays” system that would have required web content providers to pay overseas ISPs to deliver their traffic.)

But the big hot-button issue of WCIT-12 was whether the ITU should take a more active role in governing and regulating the internet, as ICANN – the group mainly in charge of that process – has been criticized for being too US-centric.

Critics have opposed the idea of an ITU-managed internet, saying it will spell the end of the free, open and decentralized internet in favor of one that is not only centralized, but one where more authoritarian regimes could push for rules more to their liking (such as content restrictions, say).

The final treaty doesn’t include an ITU internet takeover as such, but it does include a resolution (inserted at the last minute and under reportedly controversial circumstances) under which member states are invited to “elaborate on their respective positions on international Internet-related technical, development and public-policy issues within the mandate of ITU at various ITU forums”.

“Trojan horse” for future takeover

Despite the fact that the resolution appears in the appendix (which means it is non-binding), even that was too much leeway for many delegates to stomach.

Only 89 countries signed the treaty on Friday. Fifty-five refused, with the US leading the charge, backed by the UK, the European Union and others, because of the above resolution (as well as other sore points such as a resolution on doing more to fight “spam” that critics say could be used as an excuse to censor internet content).

“The United States has consistently believed, and continues to believe, that the ITRs should be a high-level document and that the scope of the treaty does not extend to internet governance or content,” said US ambassador Terry Kramer, who walked out of the Dubai conference Friday. “Other administrations have made it clear that they believe the treaty should be extended to cover those issues, and so we cannot be part of that consensus.”

Vint Cerf, chief internet evangelist at Google, who has warned against the dangers of handing ICANN’s job to the ITU, told Ars Technica: “The good guys did not win – the terms are defined in such a way as to allow a significant amount of mischief in the Internet space.”

Jerry Brito, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and co-founder of WCITLeaks.org, a site that publishes leaked documents from the conference, said the resolution is effectively a “trojan horse” that establishes the ability of ITU members to propose and pass new rules regarding internet development.

The criticism (and hyperbole) doesn’t stop there.

Former ITU policy chief Anthony Rutkowski says the WCIT-12 controversy reveals just how broken the ITU is as a regulatory organization apart from global spectrum coordination.

Other critics foresee the possibility of the internet splitting into factions – namely, those who signed the WCIT-12 treaty, and everyone else. The Economist describes it as a “digital cold war”, not least because, by perhaps no coincidence, the US and China are on opposite sides of the debate.

Two frameworks

For all that, the short-term impact of WCIT-12 will be minimal. For a start, the treaty itself doesn’t take effect until the start of 2015. Meanwhile, signatories will have to ratify the treaty in their own domestic governments, which is going to take a couple of years.

Also, most naysayers seem to be dithering over the “possible” consequences of WCIT-12, yet some of them (including Ambassador Kramer) also admit there’s a pretty big gap between what’s “possible” and what’s “likely”.

Still, it’s fair to say that WCIT-12 has essentially created two international regulatory frameworks – the updated ITRs signed by 89 countries in Dubai last Friday, and the 1988 ITRs. How that will hold up both legally and practically is anyone’s guess at this stage.

But it could make things particularly confusing in APAC, where the Final Acts document received wide support.

APAC signatories include Bangladesh, Brunei Darussalam, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.

APAC countries that refused to sign it: Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand and the Philippines.

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