Whether it was the practical matter of addressing 24-year old international telecommunications policies or the highly publicized clash of the forces of Big Government against the proponents of a free and open Internet, it was to be a landmark event. As a practical matter, the purpose of the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) last month was for the 193 member states of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a body of the United Nations, to review and perhaps modify the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs), which define the general principles for providing and operating international telecommunications.
The ITRs are part of a worldwide treaty, which while agreed upon initially in 1988, had not been revisited since. At that time, the treaty set principles for international telecommunications services, emergency calls, and charges across national borders. To say that things in the industry have changed a bit since then is to put it mildly. To put things in perspective, the last time the ITU put together a document on the world regulation of communications, mobile phones were the latest thing and the Internet was still waiting in the wings of the world stage.
So it was that December’s conference, which centered largely on governmental regulation of the Internet’s functions, its financial models, and its availability, caused quite a stir, particularly among advocates of online free speech. Particularly in light of recent world events that involved electronic telecommunications to disseminate controversial messages, hanging in the air was a basic question: Are national governments that restrict freedom of the press trying to restrict the freedom of speech on the Internet, too? On the subject of regulation of email, for example, representatives from several countries, including the United States, suggested that as governments are given power to approve or reject email, they may in effect choose to curtail or prohibit forms of free speech, such as political messages.
For its part, before and during the conference, the U.S. championed a so-called multistakeholder approach to the Internet. In this model, governments, private companies, and independent organizations are all involved voluntarily, and independent from any new law, treaty, or international regulatory body. The U.S., along with Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, openly opposed several proposed revisions to the ITRs throughout the course of the two-week long conference.
In the end, the delegation from the United States decided to reject the treaty, largely due to language related to “internet governance”, specifically, to a section of a separate, legally nonbinding resolution stating that “all governments should have an equal role and responsibility for international internet governance and for ensuring the stability, security, and continuity of the existing internet and its future development and of the future internet and that the need for development of public policy by governments in consultation with all stakeholders is also recognized.”
In the end, 89 countries, including Russia, China, and a number of developing nations, did sign the treaty. But not all was bleak and divisive: On the subject of availability, governments did agree to a provision to extend Internet access to disabled persons, one of the fundamental tenets of equal access to the World Wide Web.
The treaty signed in the United Arab Emirates was hardly the last word, however. It’s clear from the schedule of similar ITU meetings this year and the next that the subject of government involvement in the Internet is an ongoing conversation– and one with much at stake.