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.