The latest fight for control of the Internet

The Secretary General of the International Telecommunications Union donned a UN peacekeeper’s helmet in Geneva this week and declared: “We will not take over the Internet” – an inauspicious start to say the least

by Dominique Lazanski on 20 May 2013 12:11

The latest forum to address Internet governance took place this week in Geneva. The International Telecommunications Union hosted its fifth World Technology Policy Forum (WTPF) and, over the course of three days, six opinions were discussed until consensus was achieved. These agreed-upon opinions reflected the output of working groups that discussed, refined, and edited the opinions going into the WTPF. The three days were busy and not without much discussion.

But the agreed-upon opinions were not the important or substantive part of the event; the fact that this was the first ITU event since the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in December meant that the atmosphere was tense and emotionally-charged.

While the revision of the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) at the WCIT was not supposed to be about the Internet, in the end it was. Yet the failure to come to a consensus agreement on the ITRs meant that at least 55 countries didn’t sign up to the treaty and it was this that caused a fractious division in the recent debate over Internet governance.

Issues such as spam, security and human rights, and, more importantly, the role of the ITU in the Internet governance space were discussed. But it was clear that this conference was just a stepping-stone in a longer process towards the ITU Plenipotentiary in 2014, an event which will decide changes to the ITU’s constitution. In the meantime, the ITU’s Secretary General, Dr. Toure, donned a UN peacekeeper’s helmet in Geneva and declared: “We will not take over the Internet” – an inauspicious start to say the least.

But what was really going on over the last few days? Brazil introduced a revised version of Opinion 5 in order to include ‘the role of government in the multi-stakeholder process’. Governments like Russia and China, who want to see more governmental control over the Internet, supported this proposal. In the end, the proposal didn’t go through, but that is not what really mattered.

As Eli Dourado says in his piece for Foreign Policy, countries like those mentioned have started to use the language of the free and open Internet to suit their own ambitions to control the Internet on a national level and to have a UN-related body control the Internet internationally. Playing politics within a UN framework is comfortable for such countries and in the end they can achieve their aims by using the system to their advantage. Political horse-trading on a pan-UN institutional level is rumoured to be taking place too.

The point is that the ITU is where these countries, and developing countries with a weak rule of law, look first to address their grievances on Internet issues. This was clear from the WCIT and many companies and governments are working with countries to find solutions to building out networks, spam filtering, and privacy. The ITU has a role to play in its areas of competencies and does that well, but beyond that the divisive nature of what is mission creep of the ITU into the Internet will cause divisions for years to come.

On the last day of the WTPF, I spoke at an event on multi-stakeholder approaches to Internet governance. A woman from the floor pointed out that throughout this entire week a key stakeholder was missing beyond civil society, governments, and others – the technical community. She had a point and the fact that I hadn’t even mentioned it puts me to shame.

The IETF and other fora for those that build out the Internet are often put to the side in this ongoing debate. It would be wise for all of us to remember that they play a key part in all of this and one that should not be ignored. The ITU and, more importantly, government needs to remember that the technical community, along with the users, will in fact overcome any Internet power struggle.

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