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WCIT and Its Relationship to the Internet

Global Voices Advocacy This post is cross-published with Global Voices Advocacy, a Global Voices project with its own site about censorship and free speech online. · All Posts

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is the United Nations agency specializing in information and communication technologies – ICTs.

From December 3 to 14, 2012, the ITU organized the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai (United Arab Emirates) in order to review the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs).

The Vía Libre Foundation analyzes the issues of this important conference in the article entitled Después de la WCIT y más allá [es] (After the WCIT and Beyond), the first part of which we present below.

After the WCIT and Beyond
By Enrique A. Chaparro

I. Preliminary remarks and necessity
We have long maintained that certain aspects of the Internet that require some form of regulation should be managed in a way that's minimalist, democratic and respectful of human rights. In keeping with this position, we believe that a significant intervention by the ITU would bring more harm than good. But that does not turn us ipso facto into defenders of ICANN, an organization that needs deep reform, democratization and reduced authority.

Nor do we trust the good intentions of authoritarian governments (read, for example, Iran or Saudi Arabia), but neither does that necessarily generate confidence in seditious “democracies” (like the United States, which holds the world record in incarcerated people, both in absolute and relative terms, and the systematic use of torture, kidnapping and murder of those deemed political enemies). And of course a reasonable skepticism about government doesn't imply a confidence in corporations. That said, let's get to the point.

II. Introduction
The World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), like any international diplomatic conference, is a complex web of interests and a morass of overlapping poker games. Each side has its agenda, its objectives, its minimum and maximum positions, and strategies to achieve results. That's the game, and those of us looking in from the outside, but who may be affected by the outcome, must proceed with caution so as not to get involved in spite of ourselves in some of these strategies. In this particular conference, there has been a lot of “lapwing strategy” (translator's note: South American bird that lays its eggs in one place but throws its voice to sound to predators like it's somewhere else) that, in the light of the evidence, has involved–in general unwittingly–social organizations concerned with the defense of cyberspace liberty and Internet users “on the ground”.

Continuing this process, we take into account our principles regarding the issues under discussion: that communication is a fundamental right, and therefore, communication infrastructure should be considered an essential public service; that this infrastructure should be free of censorship and restrictions to privacy; and that there must be a guarantee that the regulated aspects of the Internet are kept to a strict minimum, and managed openly and democratically.

III. What is the ITU?
The ITU is an agency of the United Nations system, and predates it, emerging in 1934 as a merger of the existing International Telegram Union founded in 1865) and the International Radiotelegraph Union, in order to coordinate international radio, telegraph and telephone traffic. As we will see, it is much more than a “technical organization”.

The ITU has a unique feature among multilateral organizations of the UN system, to admit members outside the states (although only members have the right to vote) which usually means lobbying by big telecommunications companies and other pressure groups.

IV. What is the ITR?
The ITR agrees on technical standards for telecommunications (through its technical arm the ITU-T, formerly CCITT), and for radio (via ITU-R), and two key treaties that provide the political framework for international communications traffic: the RR, Radio Regulations, as amended (2008) was approved by the WRC (2), and the ITR, International Telecommunication Regulations. These treaties are reviewed from time to time to ensure they are more or less abreast of technological developments.

The ITR in effect was adopted at a WCIT in Australia in 1988. At that time, the Internet was little more than an academic experiment on connectivity in heterogeneous networks, the great wave of privatization of phone services had not reached the crest, the cell phone was in diapers (3)… For years, many member states noted the need for an update.

The object of the WCIT of 2012 in Dubai was to review the ITR and produce a new version, if necessary. Being an international treaty, it is subject to the principles of international law (in particular, the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, 1968). We note this to emphasize the importance of the instrument, which is not a simple technical rule.

V. And what does the Internet have to do with all of this?

Although not obvious by the mythical character it has acquired in recent times (4), the packets exchanged by the Internet are moved by the physical infrastructure of international telecommunications. But by design, the Internet was conceived differently than traditional telephone and telegraph communications: the voluntary joining of autonomous networks, and a small set of standards that guarantees interoperability.

Consequently, and given that its origins primarily involve the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense of the United States, issues of the Internet requiring regulation remained de facto outside the sphere of the ITR.

Of course, there are things on the Internet that should be regulated. There isn't any other choice, when we're talking about administering scant resources with alternative uses. And other shortages, implicit in the design of the Internet, were invented along the way.

The history of the administration of these transitions is very interesting, and will be worth telling another day. It's enough to know for now that today it is in the hands of ICANN, which acts by delegation of the United States Department of Commerce (5).

The U.S. government has stated, on numerous occasions and at the highest levels, that there are certain critical aspects of the Internet the control of which it does not intend to give up, such as control of the root servers of the domain name system (DNS). Moreover, as ICANN is a non-profit corporation registered in the United States, it is subject to the laws of that country.

Notes
1. “[...] but they are like the lapwings / to hide their little nests / their cries are in one place / while their eggs are in another” — José Hernández, El gaucho Martín Fierro, Canto XII
2. World Radiocommunications Conference, Geneva, 2007
3. The first public cell phone network was inaugurated by NTT in Japan in 1979. In the United States, the first network “1G” from AmeriTech, appeared in 1983.
4. Clarke's Third Law maintains: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
5. Of the plutocracy of ICANN and its processes, we will talk another time. For now, it can be said that its relationship with the U.S. government is defined by an instrument which, if set up 300 years ago, could be labeled as a ‘letters patent'.

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