Home > Internet > Big New Global Threat to the Internet or Paper Tiger?, Part II: Is the Internet Telecoms?

Big New Global Threat to the Internet or Paper Tiger?, Part II: Is the Internet Telecoms?

This is the second in a series of posts that takes a critical look at claims that proposed changes to the international telecommunications regulations (ITRs) at the WCIT meeting later this year could see the ITU establish “international control over the internet”.

My previous post described some of the background to the issues, and three key claims that are being made: (1) the ITU currently has no role with respect to the Internet but is hell-bent on changing this at WCIT; (2) the ITU is a state-run telecom club; (3) that it is a Trojan Horse for a plot by authoritarian states and legacy telcos to impose a new Web 3.0 Model – Controlled National Internet–Media Spaces – over the open global internet.

I think the claims are overblown. I do not believe that the ITU is intending to, or capable of, taking over the internet.  I mostly agree with Milton Mueller that most of the changes being discussed are mainly about economics and interconnection rather than internet censorship and control. An article in the New York Times today expressed a similar view as well.

In contrast to Mueller, though, I think that the ITU already has a legitimate claim to having a say with respect to the internet, and more to the point, it has already been playing such a role through the last dozen years of active participation in the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance.

Mueller argues that the ITU’s most important efforts to stake a claim to the internet terrain — domain name system (1996), the two phases of WSIS (2002-2005), IP address management (2009-2010), suggestions for a UN Committee on Internet Related Policies (2011) – have all been mostly failures, not least because they have all been staunchly resisted by the U.S. government. As he says, the U.S. Government ”squashed” an early campaign by the ITU and ISOC to wrestle control of the international domain name system from the U.S. “like a bug”.

Two years later, ICANN – a California-based non-profit still dependent on the US government today and increasingly embroiled in high-stakes battles over copyright worldwide (i.e. MegaUpload, Rojadirecta) – was created. Mueller is happy about this state-of-affairs. I am less so, but am under no illusions that the best path to choose is obvious.

If Professor Mueller is right, however, we might not have to choose. The ITU has no jurisdiction over the internet, he argues, just telecommunications. According to him, this is because, beginning fifty years ago during the FCC’s Computer I, II and III inquiries (c. 1965-2002), the U.S. drew a clear, bright line between telecom-based services (pipes and carriage) and computer-based information services (content and the internet).

The Computer II rules formalized the distinction between “basic” telecoms and “enhanced” information services after protracted struggles over key questions about market concentration in the telecom and information industries as well as the range of services to be delivered by the market versus those considered public goods. Many argue that the new rules were wildly successful, not least in terms of fueling the growth of the Internet. I am inclined to agree but would ratchet down the superlatives, without losing focus on issues of market concentration and the public goods nature of telecom, media and internet goods.

The rules were never straight-forward, and have been mired in political and legal mud ever since their adoption. The Supreme Court’s Brand X ruling in 2005 re-affirmed the rule, but in doing so basically set the enhanced service designation up as a near insurmountable barrier to formal net neutrality rules that can be applied to all carriers and ISPs.

The problem that I see with this argument is three-fold. First, it takes U.S. law as the world’s law. U.S. telecom policy, however, is not global internet policy, nor should it be. Moreover, if the basic/enhanced dichotomy has been mired in controversy in the U.S. for a half-century, just imagine its fate at the global level.

Second, the U.S. can slice and dice the definition of telecoms any way it sees fit, but other countries do things differently, and the ITU defines telecommunication very broadly as: “Any transmission, emission or reception of signs, signals, writing, images and sounds or intelligence of any nature by wire, radio, optical or other electromagnetic systems” (Constitution, Annex; ITR, Article 2.1). A plain reading of the definitions suggests that it includes the internet, which in fact is the view that the ITU and many of its member-states take.

Clearly, though, there is a debate over the scope of that definition and things will not be solved by recourse to formal definitions, however, but by the politics of language. Those opposed will stand firm against any formal references to the internet in the text of the ITRs, while those on the opposite side will pepper the rules with as many explicit references to the internet as possible. The fact that various members have proposed modifications or additions to at least a half-dozen sections of the ITRs that explicitly refer to the internet have brought these issues to a head.

The most important change to the ITRs is probably the proposal to include a reference to “internet traffic termination” to the existing definition of “International Telecommunications Services” in Article 2.2. Other proposed modifications refer to “VoIP” (Article 3.1, International Network), “Internet traffic and data transmission” as well as to “Internet and Internet Protocol” (Articles 4.2 and 4.3a, International Telecommunications Services, respectively).

Some proposals would also add new references to “international Internet connections” (Art. 3.7), the “internet” in a proposed new section 6.7 related to competition and interconnection issues and “measures to insure Internet stability and security” in 8.4.A (see Mueller on this point as well). References to  “cybercrime”, “data preservation, retention, protection”, “spam”, “identification”, “personal data protection” in new sections of Article 8 also have the internet clearly in their sights. I will examine some of the potential implications of these proposed changes and additions in more detail in the next two posts.

For now, however, my third argument is that things will not turn on the politics of language alone but the historical and contemporary practices of the ITU as well. In this regard, one things stands out that I think is determinative: the ITU has taken a broad, evolutionary view of its mandate and morphed with the times since its inception in 1865 (after the merger of two predecessor organizations — the Austro-German Telegraph Union (est. 1850) and the West European Telegraph Unioin (est. 1855), a point that will become important in the fourth post in this series) (see Drake, Introduction).

Originally called the International Telegraph Union, the ITU added telephones to its remit in the 1880s, radio in the early-1900s, and other new telecom technologies as they evolved. Its name was changed to the International Telecommunication Union in 1932 to reflect it broad and evolutionary view of the terrain. It’s Constitution, Decisions, Resolutions and Recommendations (DRRs) and the ITRs make a virtue out of the development and use of new telecom technologies, so it would be a real mystery to find a line drawn in the sand between telecoms before the internet and after, with the ITU confined strictly to the stuff that came in the past.

More recently, the ITU has been keen to carve out a distinct role for itself in regard to the internet since, at least, 1996, arguably earlier if we look back to the 1970s and 80s infatuation with ‘super-pipe’ models of integrated broadband media, even if the internet had not yet become a household name.  Its guts were nonetheless being put into place. And it is important to note that even the technical guts of the internet were not all made in America, as the paper by Google’s lawyers Patrick Ryan and Jacob Glick states. The UK, France and other parts of Europe were also involved, and the ITU was part of those efforts (Abbate, 1999; Mansell, 1993).

Yet, let’s take 1996 as the starting point because that is when the ITU and ISOC worked hand-in-glove in a bid to shift control over the domain name system from the U.S. to the ITU.  “The U.S. squashed that effort like a bug”, as Mueller states. Two years later, in 1998, the U.S. government created ICANN, where things have rested ever since.

Whereas Mueller sees just a long line of losses confirming that the ITU has no business in the internets of the world, I look past whether or not it has ‘won’ or ‘lost’ vis-a-vis the U.S. to see a long track record of practices that have evolved with the times. Thus, in the case of the internet, two years after the dispute over DNS, the ITU reaffirmed its commitment to cooperating with ISOC and IETF on global internet policy issues (DDR, Res. 102). It staked out matter-of-factly that it has a role to play “with regard to international public policy issues pertaining to the Internet and the management of Internet resources, including domain names and addresses” (DRR, Res. 102).

The two phases of WSIS between 2002 and 2005 also saw unprecedented participation by academics and civil society groups with the ITU in trying to imagine and map the frontiers of global internet policy. At the end of the three year process a new entity was born, the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), loosely under the direction of the United Nations, and with the ITU firmly within it alongside the rest of the ‘multi-stakeholder internet governance’ interests (ISOC, IETC, ICANN).

The IGF’s initial five year experimental period was renewed for another five years in 2010. All of this is important, too, because even if the ITRs do not currently refer to the internet, the ITU’s record of Decisions, Resolutions and Recommendations is chok-a-blok full of explicit and expansive references to the internet (see, for example, Resolutions 101, 133 & 179). Looking beyond the ITRs, therefore, we find a track-record of language on the internet that maps onto the ITU’s historical involvement with this domain since the late-1990s.

If the ITU has been such a loser with respect to global internet policy, and really has no place in it, as so many have argued (or just assumed) (Ryan & Glick; all but ISOC panellist Sally Wentworth at  U.S. congressional hearings on the so-called “International Proposals to Regulate the Internet” last month, etc.), it has been hiding in plain site. I think a better view of the matter is that, by dint of definition and a long history of evolution as well as contemporary practices, the ITU has a legitimate role to play in global internet policy.

Whether it exercises this role wisely or badly, however, is a different matter altogether, and which we will turn to in the next post.

Next Post: The ITU has been a business and market-dominated institution, not State-controlled, since the 1980s, maybe forever.

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