The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) got its start in 1869. Back then it was known as the International Telegraph Union. Samuel Morse’s invention was less than 40 years old then, and the modern nation-state was only a couple of decades older (if we date it to the Napoleonic era). The ITU, which is now part of the UN, last underwent serious reorganization in 1988, before the World Wide Web had even been invented. This week that organization decides the political future of the internet.
How will the meeting go? Reuters had some advance news of proposals last week:
While specifics of some of the most contentious proposals remain secret, leaked drafts show that Russia is seeking rules giving individual countries broad permission to shape the content and structure of the Internet within their borders, while a group of Arab countries is advocating universal identification of Internet users. Some developing countries and telecom providers, meanwhile, want to make content providers pay for Internet transmission.
Fundamentally, most of the 193 countries in the ITU seem eager to enshrine the idea that the U.N. agency, rather than today’s hodgepodge of private companies and nonprofit groups, should govern the Internet. They say that a new regime is needed to deal with the surge in cybercrime and more recent military attacks.
ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré tried to allay fears of UN control by changing the stasis of the argument. He used a particular metaphor to imply that we should trust the UN–like we do state and local governments–to provide public goods:
Touré predicted that only “light-touch” regulation on cyber-security will emerge by “consensus”, using a deliberately vague term that implies something between a majority and unanimity.
He rejected criticism that the ITU’s historic role in coordinating phone carriers leaves it unfit to corral the unruly Internet, comparing the Web to a transportation system.
“Because you own the roads, you don’t own the cars and especially not the goods they are transporting. But when you buy a car you don’t buy the road,” Touré said. “You need to know the number of cars and their size and weight so you can build the bridges and set the right number of lanes. You need light-touch regulation to set down a few traffic lights.”
Let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that traffic lights are terrible. Roads are regulated by those who produced them. The UN did not create the internet and it does not contribute much to the positive development of the internet. We can not really blame them, because it’s virtually impossible for such a top-down organization to understand the anarchic nature of the internet.
We could argue that the internet is a public good, and that the UN should police it for the benefit of all, but even that argument is flawed, for reasons I discussed here. The internet is more like geography. There is a reason that nation-states haven’t turned over territorial control to the UN–because they would be really, really bad at it. The internet is one of the last anarchic places on earth. If the UN has its way, that may not last.
Fortunately, the US delegation plans to stand against the wave of ITU regulation. Along with support from Europe and the Americas they may be able to withstand efforts by Russia, China, and other authoritarian regimes. If Secretary-General Touré remains true to his word to seek compromise solutions the outcome may protect freedom rather than infringe upon it.
Either way, events this week will set an important precedent for the future of internet politics. With smart folks like Eli Dourado on the US delegation, the debate will be an interesting one to watch.
Further reading: “WCIT is about People vs. Their Governments“
Update: More on ITU and WCIT from MIT’s Technology Review