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There is a lot of mis-information about the ITU summit in Dubai these two weeks. Much of it may be coming from people, especially those in the US, who have some kind of interest in the outcome.

What the ITU does give us, however, is a global stage on which to play out the realpolitik politics of telecoms. There is much we can learn about how the power base has shifted. In this post, I explain what I think is happening.

The ITU was created in a world that was dominated by national monopolies who controlled the telecommunications infrastructure.

In his article, Internet revolution in crisis, Milton Mueller highlights the fact that much of the freedom we enjoy on the Internet is due to a policy of liberalisation and deregulation through the 1980s and 1990s. This is correct. Policy-makers framed the legislation deliberately so that Internet services were not regulated in the same way as the old voice telephony services.

Internet service providers did not have to get a licence and they had few, if any, restrictions on how to set up their networks. This economic and regulatory freedom enabled companies to set up Internet services with a lower cost base, with the result that lots of companies entered the market (at least this is the case in the UK) and competition forced improved offers to customers, and lower prices.

This regulatory structure is not in the control of the ITU. Indeed, the ITU resisted this pull towards liberalisation, and that resistance was the problem at the 1988 meeting in Melbourne. It was at that meeting that the International Telecoms Regulations (ITRs) were drafted - and these are the rules document that are being revised this week and next in Dubai.

What is less well known, is how the ITRs came about. There was no agreement at that meeting in Melbourne in 1988. The ITRs were a set of last minute compromises, pressed onto the meeting by the combined force of the EU and US, who at that time, held the political power.

Now, if you look at what is happening in 2012, there is still an EU-US power axis, but there is also a new power axis pushing against it. The new axis would seem to the Arab and African nations, probably combined with Russia and China.

In 1988, none of those countries would have held any political power in telecommunications. A lot of telecoms equipment from the EU and US could not be sold to those countries under special rules known as Cocom, that have long since lapsed.

Now we find that China, for example, is drafting standards for the most heavy armour of telecoms equipment - deep packet inspection. How the tables have turned!

To understand why the power held by the US is critical in this context, it's also important to understand the history of the Internet development. The Internet did not begin with a bunch of freedom-loving technies fighting against governments, as some commentators (and notably one video) purport. This is a totally ficticious account of the Internet's history. The Internet's development was financed by the US Department of Defense, and was known for a long time as DARPANET. This is well-documented, and if you are a student, you should get hold of the literature on this subject. The reason for the Internet's design was that the US government wanted a network that was resilient in the event of a nuclear bomb, and it specified that there should not be any single point of failure.

The United States has always resisted giving the ITU any hook into the bodies that control the Internet. Even though it may operate through a back-stage curtain, it can be tracked that the US government remains in charge of certain critical Internet infrastructure elements. In this respect, one should be wary of US-based commentators who are slagging off the ITU. They may have a political reason for doing so.

So why do people say that the ITU discussions over the ITRs, threaten the Internet. Well, there was one set of proposals put forward by the European Telecoms Network Operators group (ETNO) that did pose a threat. ETNO wanted to embed a principle of sending party pays. This is clearly about altering the neutrality of the network and a hit at some of the big content companies, such as Google.

It is unlikely to get anywhere, but it did open a Pandora's box of unwelcome, negative publicity for the ITU.

In my opinion, it was an ill-judged and stupid move on the part of ETNO, ( WCIT-2012: ITU scrap heats up over toxic Internet proposals ) and tarnished their reputation unnecessarily. ETNO do lobby for their member's business interests, as you would expect them to do, but they are not always bad. ETNO lobbied the EU against graduated response, for example, and I personally witnessed this on one occasion.

The secretary-general of the ITU has also made statements to the effect that the ITU should be put in charge of the Internet governance. This is not the first time the ITU has made such a pitch, but it is exactly what the United States government does not want, and the ITU will never succeed as long as the US holds any power. It was therefore a case of foot-in-mouth, but not, in my opinion, any kind of real threat.

However, the Y.2770 deep packet inspection ( DPI) standard that was agreed by the ITU standards committee prior to the WCIT-12 congress is indeed deeply troubling (see The ITU's DPI standard - that's something to be afraid of!).

The ITU seems to retain an old-world mentality from the days when voice telephony was the primary service, and it seems to have not really adapted to an Internet world. This becomes obvious from looking at the ITRs revisions.

The ITU does indeed contain powerful members who want to reimpose old-style controls and censorship onto the Internet, and this is a possible interpretation of some of the proposals, such as those on cyber-security, that will be discussed in Dubai. Whether any of these proposals are agreed, will be down to the realpolitik in the conference chamber. How much can the new powers of China, Russia, the Arab and African states, hold up a majority against the old EU-US axis?

This is an original article from Iptegrity.com. If you refer to it or to its content, you should cite my name as the author, and provide a link back to iptegrity.com. Media and Academics - please cite as Monica Horten, WCIT-12: ITU and the realpolitik of telecoms, in www.iptegrity.com, 10 December 2012 . Commercial users - please contact me.


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About Iptegrity

Iptegrity.com is the website of Dr Monica Horten. I am an  independent policy advisor: online safety, technology and human rights. In April 2024, I was appointed as an independent expert on the Council of Europe Committee of Experts on online safety and empowerment of content creators and users. I am a published author, and post-doctoral scholar. I hold a PhD from the University of Westminster, and a DipM from the Chartered Institute of Marketing. I cover the UK and EU. I'm a former tech journalist, and an experienced panelist and Chair. My media credits include the BBC, iNews, Times, Guardian and Politico.

Iptegrity.com is made available free of charge for non-commercial use. Please link back and attribute Dr Monica Horten.  Contact me to use any of my content for commercial purposes.  

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