The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a United Nations specialised
agency, hosted the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT)
in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, from December 3-14. The stated purpose of this
conference was to update the rules governing international telecommunications.
But in fact, the agenda went much further. The ITU leadership and many member
states sought to extend the organisation’s authority to include global
management of Internet policy. This digital mission creep shattered any hope of
consensus in the talks. The US and most of Europe refused to sign the treaty
that was eventually proposed, and rightly so. The seemingly benign proposals
included in the final treaty actually threaten to undermine Internet freedoms
that are essential to spur economic development and protect human rights.
Communications in a changed world
The ITU, founded in 1865 as the International Telegraph Union, has long served
as the main multilateral coordination body for telecommunications regulators
around the world. In a world dominated by monopoly telephone carriers, often
government-owned, the ITU’s work was for long relatively non-controversial.
Basically, it set technical standards and established the framework for
international allocation of revenues.
In the last 25 years, however, the communications world has been turned upside
down. Internet and wireless technologies have vastly expanded access to
information and markets. The increased competition and rapid innovation has
dramatically diminished the power of domestic phone companies and, often, the
governments behind them. It has also opened up unprecedented access and avenues
for free expression to political dissidents and religious and other minorities.
This, too, angers and frustrates authorities in many countries.
The ITU has struggled to define its role in this new environment. WCIT is the
latest in a series of international conferences convened to review the
organisation’s International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs), which were
last amended in 1988.
Suggested proposals and their implications
The proposals being considered for discussion at WCIT were a hodgepodge of
technocratic-sounding changes to the current ITRs. Among them included the
• A requirement that national governments “undertake appropriate measures,
individually or in cooperation with other Member States” to protect “confidence
and security” in the Internet (proposed by a coalition of Arab states). A
related measure would have required governments to be informed of exact routing
of Internet traffic. Going further, Russia would have required networks to
identify subscribers when delivering traffic. The sponsoring states argued that
this would help them fight cybercrime, but the powers could also be used for
• A Russian proposal that member states have equal rights in the allocation of
domain names, potentially challenging the role of the US-based Internet
Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).
• A proposal by a group of European telecom network operators that, when
splitting revenues for international traffic, the principle of “sender pays”
should be followed “where appropriate.” This would be a departure from the
current practice in which each network generally pays for its own costs. The net
effect would have been to shift initial costs to content providers such as eBay
and Amazon. The idea is quite controversial. In discussion, European providers
argued that they just wanted “sender pays” to be an option, but the language
they offered arguably would have made it mandatory.
The United States and other countries were troubled by many of these individual
proposals. When taken together, the suggested policies pointed to a larger, more
fundamental problem. The clear intent was to extend the ITU’s ambit from
overseer of relationships between monopoly telephone companies to global
Internet rule maker. At a time when competition should be making the
organisation increasingly irrelevant, these changes sought to expand its turf.
At best, this is unnecessary. The Internet is doing quite well under the current
framework. At worst, the expansion would allow the UN – the parent organisation
of ITU - to stifle the Web.
The Dubai conference did not resolve these issues. Some of the controversial
proposals – such as the Internet “sender pays” plan, were withdrawn or defeated.
But, the delegates in Dubai did not entirely leave the Internet alone. A last
minute addendum to the proposed treaty asserted a role for the ITU in deciding
policy regarding the Internet. This statement, while not specific to any
particular policy, was a step too far for the US and dozens of other countries,
who rejected the document. In all, some 80 countries, including India, said they
would not sign, although some reserved the option of signing later.
Unfortunately, the split result at the WCIT paves way for subjecting the
Internet to multiple regulatory frameworks. Such a regime could easily hinder
its growth and reach.
Analysing the outcome
Though the outcome is disappointing, it could have been far worse. The world’s
democracies could have wound up compromising key principles and undercut the
freedom that has fuelled the Internet’s success. If individual countries choose
to balkanise and impose repressive regulatory control, the US and its allies
cannot stop them. Their priority is to protect the vitality and viability of the
Internet for their citizens.
No system of Internet governance is perfect, including the current system.
However, the strong growth of the Internet in recent decades has sparked
tremendous economic growth and significantly advanced freedom of expression
around the globe. The laissez faire arrangement that made all that possible is
certainly worth defending.
The US and other countries were right to reject the WCIT outcome. We can only
hope they continue to stand by their principles so their citizens can continue
to benefit from a free and vibrant Internet.