The Internet Takeover That Never Was

BY Ellen Rolfes and Jeremy Blackman  December 5, 2012 at 3:00 PM EDT


Delegates to the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications gathered for an opening press conference Dec. 3, 2012. Photo by the International Telecommunications Union.

This week and next, representatives from the world’s 193 nations are gathered in Dubai for the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications.

The 11-day conference has a singular focus: to revise regulations that have not been touched since 1988, including new language and possible rules about the infrastructure of the Internet.

But even before country delegations arrived Monday, giant corporations such as Google, tech experts and Internet access activists have been predicting the worst possible outcomes of an expanded treaty. They’ve called it “World War 3.0,” the end of Internet freedom and a hostile Internet takeover.

So here is a basic breakdown of the major players, what’s at stake, and whether such an intergovernmental treaty could affect the average Web user.



WHO ARE THE KEY PLAYERS?

International Telecommunications Union: The ITU is a United Nations special agency that began in 1865. Early on, its job was to regulate international networks for telegraphs and subsequently telephones. Its primary mission is to improve connectivity across telecommunications networks.

Members of the ITU: The primary members are member states, representatives from the 193 countries of the world. In addition, there are more than 700 private organizations that have joined as nonvoting sector members.

National Governments: The member governments have varying agendas. The United States, for example, is most concerned with issues of Internet governance. It will be pressuring the conference to make as few changes to the treaty as possible.

A second group of countries, including Russia and China, are pushing to expand regulations that would give government more control over the Internet.

And third, many developing countries are interested in expanding access and making high-speed Internet and broadband affordable so that more of their citizens can use the Internet for social and economic benefits.

Private and Civil Society: This includes pretty much everyone else: nonprofits, academic organizations, think tanks and multinational corporations, to name a few.


WHAT ARE PEOPLE SO WORRIED ABOUT?

Concerns about new Internet regulations revolve around two things: The regulations don’t compromise Internet freedom or access and Internet regulations are decided in a transparent process that would cut across bureaucratic lines.

Regulation would be a major move for the ITU since the Internet was never mentioned in the original 1988 treaty, which was written when the Internet was still relatively young. Some doubt the ability of the ITU to take a treaty from the ’80s and impose it onto today’s highly decentralized Internet.

Several developed countries, including the U.S. and much of Western Europe, have also raised concerns about human rights. Russia, for example, proposed from Russia significant Internet protocol routing that some worry could give governments the ability to filter citizens’ online activity and thus suppress dissent.

“It would make it easier for national governments to monitor traffic, violate human rights and obstruct commercial and political exchange across borders,” said Tim Maurer, a program associate at New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute.

In the months leading up to the conference, nongovernmental organizations and businesses also criticized WCIT for limiting the civil and private sector’s participation at the conference to observer status only. Only the 193 member nations and their delegations are allowed to submit proposals and revisions to the treaty.

Internet leaders in the civil and private sectors submitted a statement to the Secretariat of the ITU in November 2012, which said the conference was not transparent enough and did not give all organizations that have a stake in Internet regulations a seat at the negotiation table.


THIS IS ‘NOT ABOUT TAKING OVER THE INTERNET’

Many, however, say the controversy has been blown out of proportion.

“The idea that this meeting is meant to be an Internet takeover has been exaggerated,” said Milton Mueller, a professor in the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University. “Basically what you have is a very old treaty, which still has references to the telegram, and a very old institution that realizes that the Internet has become dominant so they would like to have some sort of leverage in that system.”

At a press conference Monday, ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré put it simply, “Let me be very clear one more time: WCIT is not about taking over the Internet.”


HOW COULD THIS CHANGE THE STRUCTURE OF THE INTERNET?

Once there is a revised treaty drafted, it will only come into full force if a majority of countries ratify it into national law. And that process could take several months, if not years. And should an insufficient number of countries ratify the treaty, it will not be binding by law for any country. If key Web traffic producers such as the U.S., do not ratify the treaty, the ITU’s power to enforce new regulations may be minimal.

So rest assured, web users, though serious discussion will continue about new regulations, fears that the Internet is about to drastically change should be considered with a grain of salt.

Jeremy Blackman contributed to this report.


Read more:

Vanity Fair | Michael Joseph Gross: “In the Battles of SOPA and PIPA, Who Should Control the Internet?

New America Foundation | Tim Maurer: “What’s at Stake at WCIT?

Internet Governance Project | Milton Mueller: “Three little ICANN atrocities that make the ITU look good by comparison

ITU: “WCIT-12 Frequently Asked Questions

The New York Times | Eric Pfanner: “Debunking Rumors of an Internet Takeover