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Entries in ITU (1)

Monday
Dec172012

So, what exactly happened at WCIT?

The short answer is this map, which shows the voting outcome. Broadly, the US, western Europe and friends refused to vote for the new ITR (international telecom regulations) treaty. Russia, China, most of Africa and the Arab states voted for it. Or as The Economist would have it, the return of the Cold War factions.

The biggest loser is the ITU itself, the official UN agency for international telecoms.

The immediate reason is because its old-style, behind-closed door, governments-only approach doesn’t work in the 21st century. 

Longtime ITU observer Keiren McCarthy writes:

In the end, the ITU and the conference chair, having backed themselves to the edge of a cliff, dared governments to push them off. They duly did. And without even peeking over, the crowd turned around and walked away.

Quite a few people - like TechDirt and a US delegation member – forecast that the organization will continue on in a fragmented, politicised way. A bit like the UN itself.

Tech Dirt goes on to say the main reason for the impasse is that

…here is a world in which there are two competing visions for the future of the internet -- one driven by countries who believe the internet should be more open and free... and one driven by the opposite. Whether or not the ITU treaty is ever meaningful or effective, these two visions of the internet are unlikely to go away any time soon.

As for the specifics of the treaty (full text here), the NGO Access Now provides this analysis

The Good

None of the key definitions in the treaty like “telecommunications” or “international route” were expanded to include the internet. Problematic language giving states a right to know how traffic is routed, opening up the door to widespread surveillance and necessitating costly changes to internet architecture was also rejected…

The controversial ETNO [European Telecom Network Operators] proposal, which would have subjected the internet to the “sending party pays” billing model of traditional telephony also didn’t make it into the treaty.

The Bad

A new provision, that requires states to “ensure the provision of Calling Line Identification -- an undefined term but one that certainly includes user data -- made it into the treaty. Worse still, this provision can be modified by future ITU-T standards, which could dangerously expand this treaty to include the internet.

The Ugly

Article 5B calls on governments to prevent “unsolicited bulk electronic communications” which could apply to the internet.

Finally, despite all of the assurances of the ITU Secretariat that the WCIT wouldn’t discuss internet governance, the final treaty text contains a resolution that explicitly “instructs the Secretary-General to take the necessary steps for the ITU to play and active and constructive role in... the internet.”

It also says “all governments should have an equal role and responsibility for international internet governance” – a reference to the Russian and Chinese demand that the US surrender its official influence over ICANN.

We shouldn’t weep for the ITU.  These days it is little more than the global registry for technical agreements hammered out in other industry bodies. It will still play that role. It has plenty of time to adjust to its new role as arena for geopolitical contest.