It has been almost 10 days since the start of the UN conference in Dubai where hundreds of diplomats, representatives, and various figure heads have been meeting to discuss reform of the International Telecommunication Regulations. In that time, a few key things have happened, but we have not yet reached the point of no return that everyone the world over seems so worried about. In about two days, members of the ITU will finalize discussions on the regulation changes specifically aimed toward global communications and the Internet.
As I previously stated, this topic has been a controversial one that both major governments and corporations alike have spoken out against. Even more recently, a petition has appeared online demanding the ITU to not change any existing regulations that might hinder freedom and openness of the Internet. While many people seem upset about the idea of any changes being made to international laws regulating use and access of the Internet, the question remains: What exactly are they discussing at the UN conference and how will it impact us?
Good news for the legal or politically enticed. Because this is a UN agency conference, us normal people have free access to review the documents and items being discussed. This includes agendas, informative pieces on topic items, press releases, as well as previous proposals and public comments.
A WCIT website presentation lays out the following topics of discussion:
- Mobile Roaming (and the ridiculous charges from it)
- Misuse and fraud
- Transparency of routing
- New general principles on economic issues
- Differentiated traffic management
- Cooperation on cybersecurity
- Cooperation to combat spam
- Energy efficiency
Each topic deals with finding ways to remove barriers and coordinate procedures and rules that impact companies and individual users alike when it comes to international communication and technologies. And for the most part, every single topic seems to be proposed as a positive way to protect users from misuse and abuse of existing systems. Don't like getting charged ridiculous fees on your cell phone when traveling? Run a telecommunications business and tired of being taxed twice by two different countries you do business in? Tired of those Nigerian scam emails? The discussions that have been going on for the last week and a half are trying to deal with that.
But even with all the available information, and the promise of the ITU that it will not limit free and open access to the Internet, many people are still upset that bureaucrats are discussing these changes privately without any feedback from the public. And when looking at the finer points of the documentation, the truth is, the angry horde may be right; to a point.
The initial resolution that called for review and changes to the ITRs was ratified in 2006, giving nearly six years for planning and proposal submission from various countries interested in refining the international treaty. While this may seem like a lot of time for public review and the resulting outcry, the original proposed changes to the ITR (pdf) were not posted publicly for review and comment until July 2012; just four months before the start of the conference. But here is the real kicker. Even though the original proposed revisions to the ITR included some reference to the Internet in several areas, the final changes to the regulations were not updated and released until November 30th; just a few days before the conference. And with those final changes came a much wider scope of influence on regulation of the Internet.
According to the WCIT website, Article 3A (as well as several other new clauses) was proposed by the Russian Federation with the support and endorsement of Algeria. While not officially endorsing the item, both China and the UAE also agreed that the Internet should be included in the latest revisions of the ITRs and pushed for discussion to be held in Working Group 2 of Committee 5. Each of the above mentioned countries are well known for their censorship of both the Internet and media. Naturally, countries like Canada, France, Sweden, and the United States opposed the proposal, but their initial pleads to limit the scope of discussion to initial plenary sessions only fell on deaf ears. The Chairman agreed to allow informal discussions to continue while deferring the final decision to another plenary session later in the week.
But what exactly is in Article 3A? At this point in time, it is little more than four paragraphs. Of the total 53 references to the word "Internet" that can be found throughout the entire revised ITRs, only eleven of them are used under the proposed article. But those few paragraphs could have a big impact. Namely the below:
3A.2 Member States shall have equal rights to manage the Internet, including in regard to the allotment, assignment and reclamation of Internet numbering, naming, addressing and identification resources and to support for the operation and development of basic Internet infrastructure.
3A.3 Member States shall have the sovereign right to establish and implement public policy, including international policy, on matters of Internet governance, and to regulate the national Internet segment, as well as the activities within their territory of operating agencies providing Internet access or carrying Internet traffic.
The Internet as we know it is not entirely random. Each address and IP number is picked and assigned by governing forces that many Internet users are completely unaware exist. And at this moment, the U.S. leads the global influence in Internet numbering and naming. How do they do it though? Through a complex web (get it?) of organizations.
First are the Regional Internet Registries, which divide up resources to various service providers and companies that ultimately use the IP numbers and data to provide Internet to end users. There are five RIRs in all; one for each major region of the world. And naturally, each RIR is influenced (read: controlled) by corresponding governments in its region. But the RIRs are only small-time players in the global Internet resource arena. The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), manages and distributes the Internet resources that are given to each of the Regional Internet Registries. That organization has authority to distribute as they see fit and does so regularly according to current "need" in each region. But it doesn't stop there. The IANA is actually managed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which is in turn under contract and direct oversight by the United Stated Department of Commerce. As a result, in a way, the U.S. government holds the true power behind what form and shape the Internet takes in the future. And Russia is fed up with it.
The first paragraph proposed above would change the way Internet resources are assigned by giving all members of the ITU an equal stake in the dispersal of said resources. The U.S. Government wouldn't like that and as such has been very loud in its opposition to the inclusion of the Internet at all under the revised ITRs. While paragraph 3A.3 does offer individual countries the sovereign right to control, manipulate, and thus possibly censor the Internet through each countries' individual policies, the real reason behind the U.S. Government's vocal opposition is far more than just freedom of speech. Russia is essentially trying to play an economic and political game of power shuffling in the hopes of drastically changing who controls the backbone of the Internet.
Regardless of the political games being played during this conference, one thing that everyone should walk away from this topic with is a better understanding of the UN and what type of impact any changes will have on each individual end user. While the media may have you believe that the conference in Dubai spells the certain end of the free and open Internet, don't let their fear mongering scare you. The true answer is rather simple: Not much will change at all.
The U.N. and it's agency, the ITU, provide no real enforcement method for any of it's regulations or treaties without the individual compliance and involvement of its member states. That means any changes that may be made to the ITRs to include the Internet are non-binding as no official method of enforcement exists on the international scale. Luckily for my fellow U.S. citizens, our government has already voted to ignore UN oversight and regulation that might apply for the Internet so we are safe to continue another day browsing an Internet that is uncensored and uncontrolled (sic) by the politicians in Washington. Meanwhile, other countries like China and the UAE will continue with their Internet censorship and control, just as if nothing else had changed.
If you are interested in reading the proposed regulation changes in full, click the link below:
Click Here (Microsoft Word)
If you are interested in reading about the good things that WCIT is working toward, feel free to check out the FAQ and myth-busting section of their website. They are truly trying to do good and have some good causes they are working toward during this conference. If I have time, I will lay out other portions of the proposed changes later in the week for easier review and access.
Also, keep up to date on highlights of the conference by clicking: Here
The best way to stay up to date and informed is by staying involved. So go out there and make a difference.