A Sticky WCIT

Posted by Paul Szyndler on 27 February 2012

The World Conference on International Telecommunications is more important to those who follow internet governance generally believe, auDA Manager for International and Government Relations Paul Szyndler writes.


The International Calendar

Every year, auDA’s calendar is crammed chock-full with a wide range of international meetings and conferences relating to Internet Governance. As we’re a small not-for-profit, it’s a significant commitment to engage and follow it all.

The international gatherings we cover include fora such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), Asia Pacific Top Level Domain Association (APTLD), the Internet Engineering Taskforce (IETF) and the UN’s Internet Governance Forum (IGF). These are our core business, where auDA staff are actively involved because the agendas of these groups relate directly to our policy and technical management of the Domain Name System in Australia.

Our international efforts ensure that the interests of .au and Australian Internet users are represented, and helps guide international processes towards outcomes reflective of our domestic priorities.

Old school

There also exists a vast range of meetings that we can only monitor from the periphery, typically because participation is limited to governments and their delegates and not members of the broader Internet multi-stakeholder community. Most of these sorts of events fall under the umbrella of the United Nations and, in particular, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

Given the rapid evolution of communications technologies, it’s almost unfathomable that the ITU was established back in 1865. It has responsibility for global coordination and standardisation across a range of ICTs – radio spectrum, satellites, telephony, wireless standards, TV broadcasting and just about everything else.

With one notable exception. Internet Governance.

While the ITU undertakes a great deal of important work with regard to broadband rollout and facilitating access for developing countries, it is not directly involved in the regulation and management of the Internet’s key systems of unique identifiers (IP addresses and domain names).

Even though the Internet is managed through a multi-stakeholder model where anyone, with any affiliation, from anywhere can contribute, a lot of Governments would be a lot happier if the role were dragged into an inter-governmental forum that they are more comfortable with. Even if it is 150 years old and doesn’t hear everyone’s voice.

The main event

Given these ongoing tensions, whenever the ITU holds a block-buster conference or congress on even vaguely Internet-related issues, it attracts the attention of our entire community.

And, one of the biggest they’ve held in a while, will be held in Dubai from the 3rd to the 14th of December.

The World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) will be the first such event convened by the ITU and grew from a 2006 resolution that ordered a review of the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs).

No; at first, I didn’t know what the ITRs were, either.

The ITRs are a set of rules that ensure interconnection and interoperability of telecommunications systems. Very high level stuff, but the ITRs were, at the time, a considerable liberalisation of the international telecoms market and ultimately help ensure I can pick up the phone, dial 0011 etc etc, and get through to almost anyone in the world.

So what’s the problem?

The ITRs were ratified and given treaty status in 1988. For the most part, the Internet wasn’t around then.

The main point of concern for many observers is that some States will take the opportunity this review presents to propose clauses or amendments that would hand regulatory power over elements of the Internet’s operation to Governments. And only Governments.

There is also concern that more authoritarian States could propose the inclusion of vague, ill-formed references to cyber-security and cyber-crime that would then provide sweeping powers of control and censorship.

This worries quite a few people. Some, in quite senior positions - such as the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s Commissioner - are being downright alarmist about it.

Irrespective of how likely it is that WCIT-12 will result in the end of the world, one has to recognise that this is a treaty-level negotiation, so it’s serious stuff. Once ratified and countries sign up to the revised ITRs, they are bound by them.

The Road so Far

The process of proposing and considering revisions is a long and complicated one and is already well underway. There is a never-ending series of regional, working group and Council-level meetings where debate and discussion is currently occurring.

Given the progress of the last 12 months, there is quite a lot to be cheerful about.

Firstly, it was agreed that the scope of the negotiations would be based around the reform of existing ITRs. It helped that other international organisation such as the OECD came out in support of existing internationalised, transparent, open and multi-stakeholder governance and policy-making models. The US Government endorsed and adopted this as its formal position….though anything the US does often draws a mixed response in international circles.

Narrowing the focus of WCIT-12 to redrafting existing regulations was an important outcome because it closed the door on the possible development of a substantially new, stand-alone set of regulations that delve far too deep into the world of Internet governance and regulation.

Also over the last 12 months, little has emerged by way of drafts or proposed edits that could have a similar negative effect on the Internet landscape. Rather, much of the work has focussed on traditional telecoms issues – interconnection, accessibility and, of course billing and charges.

But it’s not over yet

Good news aside, it is always possible that things can change.

While wholesale addition of chapters and regulations won’t occur, and there have been no overtly Internet Governance-related drafting proposals, it is entirely likely that more subtle editorial suggestions will emerge that could leave the door open to the IG space. For example, concerns over the highjacking of telephony numbering ranges of developing countries could readily lead to proposals regarding greater numbering security, leading to broader numbering / addressing protections…..and suddenly we are getting close to IP addresses and the DNS.

Also, in particular, dramatic changes can emerge at the 11th hour. The intensity of negotiations in the months before WCIT, and during the 10 working days of the conference, could see anything happen. It could, indeed, end up the Internet equivalent of the Cuban missile crisis and we will need calm heads and wise minds in the room to navigate the process safely …after all, it’s happened before.

And this is why we care

Following the goings on within the ITU is, at the best of times, a complicated, resource-consuming and draining exercise. So much is happening at once that it is hard for an individual to be across it all. Even more-so when we are trying to participate from the edges, and aren’t “in the room” when the hard negotiation starts.

While stakeholders are monitoring developments closely, there is also a contradictory tension. The event itself isn’t REALLY about Internet issues. But it could be. All of us paying so much close attention to it, manoeuvring, lobbying and exchanging ideas may inadvertently make it so.

Regardless, the threat of “what could go wrong” at WCIT-12 is too significant to ignore. Few in the current Internet community would wish to wake on the morning of 15 December to find a dramatically changed landscape where Governments hold extensive self-appointed powers of Internet regulation, which runs counter to what we have all worked on together for the last few decades.

And that is why we care, why we will follow developments, discuss and strategies with colleagues and counterparts and why we will engage our governments with our views. It’s highly unlikely that the way the Internet is currently run will all come crashing down at WCIT. But it’s also something that can’t be left to chance.