Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Who’s Afraid of WCIT-12?

• August 21, 2012 • 9:10 AM

As obscure government meetings go, a mid-winter conclave of telegraph agency bureaucrats feels about as distant from power as one gets. And yet, great sturm und drang is greeting the run-up to this December’s meeting of the International Telecommunications Union, a United Nations body that used to regulate telephone communications and now does…something undecided. Which is where the problems have started.

The ITU, arguably the modern world’s first international body, theoretically regulates humanity’s communications networks. However, as explained in this helpful backgrounder from Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the ITU hasn’t updated its bylaws and or redefined its basic function since 1988. Meaning the UN’s telecommunications regulation agency doesn’t have any rules about modern mobile or Internet communications, which both were born after ’88. (As were many of the new technology’s most ardent users).

That changes this year with the ITU’s next meeting in Dubai, called the World Conference on International Communications 2012 (WCIT -12). The meeting, a debate of the agency’s role as defined in this working paper, appears to be pitting advocates of various models for control of the internet. Put crudely, the different sides are those who want greater control over the Internet by governments, those who prefer greater control by “multiple stakeholders,” and advocates of expanding the dispersed power of the global network’s two billion or so users.

Six months of negotiation have already occurred, and no one outside the meeting rooms knows what they have produced. A recent story in Bangkok’s Post newspaper—one of the preparatory meetings happened in Thailand a few weeks ago —quoted a participant in the negotiations arguing that the U.N. body shouldn’t be involved in the Internet at all, and should stick to regular telephone communications. Per the Post’s informative story:

Among the changes being proposed for discussion are amendments dealing with human rights of access to communications; security in the use of ICT [International Communications Technology]; protection of critical national resources; international frameworks; charging and accounting including taxation, interconnection and interoperability; quality of service, and convergence.

The current system of internet governance uses a “multi-stakeholder model” in which decisions about technical and operational aspects are made through international non-profit and non-governmental organizations. These include participation by academics, engineers, representatives of the private sector and governments.

Internet policy scholar Jonah Force Hill, author of the Harvard Belfer Center analysis linked above, notes that some believe the whole thing is a tempest in a teapot. Hill, though, leans toward it being as big a deal as critics say it could be:

Currently, the Internet is regulated by a patchwork of independent public and private so-called ‘multi-stakeholder’ organizations that share responsibility for the Internet’s core governance functions….

…Not all nations are happy with this somewhat informal regulatory structure.  Many governments have argued, with some justification, that the present regulatory environment unfairly serves American business and ideological interests.  Moreover, they assert that the “multi-stakeholder” model of governance is unresponsive to their state interests and that it allows for a degree of freedom fundamentally inconsistent with the social norms of some non-Western cultures.

For years, China, Russia, Iran and many Arab states have tried to shift power away from these multi-stakeholder organizations that today regulate the Internet, and to place increased authority within the ITU, believing that the U.N. affiliate, with its state-centric one-country-one-vote decision making structure, would be more representative of their interests and more responsive to their influence.

Interestingly, an effort by various transparency and internet-access advocates managed to make this a big enough controversy that the ITU opened its agenda up to public comment, starting last week. If you’d like to tell the U.N. how you want the internet run, you can do so here.

Marc Herman

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


Follow us


That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.