By Tom Risen
The Internet developed absent of any state control, so the upcoming conference of the International Telecommunications Union raises hype about whether the United Nations’ state-centric organization would mandate state governance over the Internet.
The World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) slated for December in Dubai will make revisions to the International Telecommunication Regulations treaty. The ITU was founded in 1866 and is responsible for telephone calls and satellite orbits. The treaty negotiated in 1988 set regulation standards for telephone infrastructure but took a hands off approach to the Internet. Only Member States of the ITU have voting power on any revisions.
Because so much has changed since then, Google’s Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf said regulation using the old telephonics model of business could stifle the Internet’s current “permissionless innovation.”
“The basic idea of money flow on the Internet is different than in the telecom world,” Cerf said. “Imposing telephony models on the Internet is a bad idea.”
Some governments are considering using the treaty to extend government authority over Internet use in their nations. In September, officials from China, Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan submitted an International Code of Conduct for Information Security to the U.N., seeking the regulation of global Internet behavior. If there were laws about what people could do online, Internet freedom could be severely curtailed.
Moderating a panel about the topic on Wednesday at Google’s Internet at Liberty 2012 conference, Al-Jazeera journalist Riz Khan addressed concerns about whether or not to move forward with centralized control or the current hands-off approach.
“That lack of centralized control is perhaps what has allowed it to develop so organically,” Kahn said while moderating a panel on the subject.
Any possibility of adding state control to the Internet arouses suspicion, said Ben Wagner, a researcher at the European University Institute in Florence.
“In a general sense there have been a lot of proposals in the last few years that have raised eyebrows in many parts of the world regarding giving a more formal role for states and governmental organizations,” Wagner said. “Given many of the developments that have been extremely positive in the last few decades in mobile and fixed-line spectrum, it would be extraordinary to give all of that up.”
The treaty-writing process will take place without the involvement of civil society, prompting civil society organizations from numerous countries to request transparency from the ITU in an open letter on May 17.
The input of the civil society should be an important part of the treaty process said ITU’s American liason Gary Fowlie said several times during an hour-long discussion that the ITU conference slated for December “is not about Internet governance.”
“You can’t have the benefits of the information society without having that involvement of civil society. The very technology itself is empowering civil society to be demand to be heard.” Fowlie said. “I do not have the crystal ball on this, the 193 Member States do. The (WCIT) report will be made public at some point.”
Citing a need to maintain the Internet like a utility, Fowlie referred to an estimate by the GSMA mobile operator organization that $800 billion would be needed in mobile infrastructure investment by 2015 if mobile broadband use continues to grow at the current rate.
“If we want to keep the mobile miracle alive, we’re going to have find a way to build and expand that infrastructure,” Fowlie said.
For any ITR treaty to be fair, Fowlie said it must make sure the least developing countries of the 193 members need to have a stake in the information society, and would have to uphold the U.N.’s Article 19 right “to hold and express opinion across all media and all frontiers.”
“This could be the first real challenge to Article 19, because as an infrastructure, dare I say utility, unlike water, power and transportation, it is not so easy to control at the border,” Fowlie said. “Today there are more than 6 billion mobile subscriptions, and almost 2.5 billion people have Internet access.”
Recognizing the need to sustain the success of “the mobile miracle,” Folwie elaborated on a need for “light touch” regulation mentioned by Toure.
“It means something that is going to encourage investment and not kill the goose that laid the golden egg,” Fowlie said.
Offering a journalist’s perspective, Khan said there is a big learning curve for developing countries on the Internet and the media, which could complicate efforts for centralized Internet regulation.
“Technology is a huge tool to level the playing field, but it’s going to take time since every country has different attitudes towards what that technology is useful for,” Khan said. “I believe people should have standards, but I don’t think regulation the way people talk about the Internet and the media is a good thing. People should be able to access everything openly, but be educated in how to use them.”