What #WCIT Says About the Internet’s Future

WCIT 2012 - Opening Ceremony & Opening Plenary
Last week at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), a treaty that would have imposed stricter Internet regulations, was struck down by a US-led coalition of dissenting countries.

…The United States, which framed its dissent as defending “the open Internet,” was joined by more than 80 other countries, including Australia, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, Greece, Italy, Japan, Kenya, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Sweden and the United Kingdom. (Some of the non-signers seemed to be seeking to avoid making too overt of a political statement, saying, regrettably that they could not sign because they had to “consult with capital.”)

On Friday, the remaining members of the ITU, which is made up of 193 countries, signed the treaty, known as International Telecommunications Regulations, but the gesture in many ways was hollow…

“The internet has given the world unimaginable economic and social benefit during these past 24 years. All without UN regulation. We candidly cannot support an ITU Treaty that is inconsistent with the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance,” said Terry Kramer, head of the US delegation.

The treaty would have not only imposed more limits on free speech, but also changed the way the Internet operated. Countries leading the charge for the treaty also have a history of Internet censorship like China and Russia. The UAE, which coincidentally hosted this conference, was also a treaty proponent.

Here is the specific reason why the treaty went down in flames.

…Much of it came down to the idea that the content of the Internet, rather than its regulation alone, was at stake in the treaty’s language. And some of it had to do, as well, with governance — in particular, the idea that the U.S. government should get to determine which decide which body should regulate the Internet’s address system as a legacy of its funding for ARPANET. (The U.S. says that this structure allows its experts to make “agile, rapid-fire decisions” about the Internet’s development, maintaining that any other system might be used for purposes of censorship, interference in the operation of ISPs, and the interruption of U.S.-run operations like Google and Facebook.)…

“A free and open world depends on a free and open Internet,” declared Google in a anti-treaty campaign. Governments alone, working behind closed doors, should not direct its future.  The billions of people around the globe who use the Internet should have a voice.”

There have been complaints for years that the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is out of touch with how the Internet is used and lack transparency around its proceedings.  ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun I. Toure said that “history will show that the conference has achieved something extremely important,” but we think history might not be so kind to the institution.  ITU has long been accused of being distrustful and secretive in the run up to the conference and gave out very limited information about the treaty.  Many believe that Internet regulation will come up again at the World Telecommunication/Information and Communication Technology Policy Forum (WTPF) next May.

“In the end, the ITU and the conference chair, having backed themselves to the edge of a cliff, dared governments to push them off,” said Kieren McCarthy, who runs the internet consultancy dot-nxt. “They duly did.”

Dot-nxt also made public all WCIT related documents for everyone to see here just prior to the conference.

Coincidentally, ITU put out a new report in September about the need for better broadband expansion.  If this treaty had passed, it would have compromised this expansion and limited the free flow of information globally.  Most of the treaty’s proponents – mainly authoritarian countries – could also propose in the future that broadband access be limited to prevent any online revolts like the Arab Spring.  There are many examples of countries shutting down the Internet entirely in order to muzzle dissenters, like what happened recently in Syria.  If anything, the new Global Trends report shows that new technologies will be a major game changer socially, economically and politically over the next 20 years.

Freedom of information and universal Internet access should be fully embraced by all countries, not deterred.

So, yes, Dr. Toure, history shows many things, but it is not too late to make changes about how your organization operates in the future.

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