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What went wrong at WCIT

By Paul Budde - posted Monday, 24 December 2012


There are many positives to WCIT-12 – 95% of the issues discussed reached full consensus. This means that the international telecoms world is still turning round, and will continue to do so. As is often the case, the media focus has been, not on what is achieved, but on what went wrong. BuddeComm, however, acknowledges the positives, while at the same time this analysis looks at what went wrong and why we believe that happened.

As has been widely reported the key problem area was more of a political nature and clearly created a division between the countries with very strong positions on freedom of speech, especially in relation to the internet, and those who would like to see more international control or governance of the protocols, and naming and numbering systems that allow it to work.

The political debates during the conference on these issues showed a clear difference in opinion between the western world and the rest of the world – this despite the fact that anything that could undermine the freedom of the internet (as in content) was dealt with in both the preamble and the final text. Unfortunately however, this did not undo the fundamental differences expressed during the often heated political debates, and in the end even any perceived possible interference was shunned by the 55 countries who did not sign the final text of the Treaty on International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs) on the closing day. Some of these are likely to accede to the Treaty after consultation with their parliaments, while others will probably never do so.

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As with other international treaties, political differences are becoming increasingly prominent, and as we have indicated in our wrap-up of WCIT-12 this is a bad omen for the ITU, which until now has largely been free of such a high level of political interference.

A major focus of WCIT-12 was on how to speed up connecting the 4.5 billion people that are not yet online. We cover this in a separate analysis. BuddeComm also strongly believes that the UN Broadband Commission for Digital Development can play a key role in this process.

The definition of the internet

As BuddeComm was already saying in June, a key problem that we believe significantly contributed to the split in WCIT-12 is the misalignment of definitions of the internet. The US definition differs from the one applied in the rest of the world, and, while it has not been adopted by many others, we believe that this fundamental difference is the main reason for the WCIT problems.

For the USA the internet means both content and telecom infrastructure. This strange construct was created by Verizon and AT&T in the USA in order to prevent anyone from obtaining regulated access to their telecoms networks. Regulations in the USA are largely dictated by these two giants and, as a consequence of their successful lobbying activities (worth hundreds of millions of dollars), their wishes are largely rubberstamped by Congress.

If this difference between definitions had not existed the internet, as in content, could easily have been separated from the telecoms infrastructure. The intertwined nature of the American interpretation kept the issue contaminated.

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Sender pays issue

The ETNO proposal from the European telcos, which never had any serious chance of even making it to the conference agenda, was nevertheless used by Google to create a massive PR campaign to demonise, not the ETNO proposal, but WCIT and the ITU.

Most emerging countries would also have liked such a clause in relation to international internet tariffs, similar to the one most of them still use for telephony traffic. These international settlement charges have largely been abandoned by the western economies. However, the internet is not the same as telephony and such a surcharge would actually have hampered the development of their digital economy. A major problem here is that in many developing economies much of those fees are hived off by ruling business and government families. This, in turn, is a major obstacle to telecoms reforms that are needed in these countries for the development of their digital economies.

Internet governance

Separately, Russia had been working on a proposal that would introduce internet governance to the WCIT agenda. Again, this proposal had no real chance of being accepted but naturally, and quite correctly, it was taken up by Civil Society as an attack on the freedom of speech and the freedom of the internet.

This issue also became intertwined with the other issues mentioned above, in relation to the definition of the internet. It captured worldwide attention and people all over the western world were up in arms. In the end none of the proposal made it into the Treaty text itself – with only one, non-binding, resolution even mentioning the word 'internet'.

The ITU

The ITU, the organisers of the conference, were not well-prepared for these attacks, as nothing like this had ever occurred in its 150-year history. The organisation itself is mainly staffed by engineers working to make sure that we have an accessible and interoperable telecoms network. They were unaccustomed to vicious politicised attacks, and they themselves lacked the level of transparency that is expected nowadays from such organisations. While they quickly opened themselves up to the broader society, there simply was not enough time for them to make the necessary transformation of their organisation.

Deliberate confusion

The toxic mixture of conflicting interests and confusing language began to brew in the months before the actual conference. The complex issues were not well understood by the media and the misleading PR campaign from Google was embraced by the media as the truth ('The ITU is there to take over the internet'), and the so-called attack on the internet became the headline of choice for most of the media.

The situation in the USA became rather ridiculous – politicians there went absolutely overboard. Congress ruled that the USA would never accept a takeover of the internet; they obviously believed that this takeover was imminent in Dubai.

The final straw

The issue of internet governance started to polarise the conference, clearly separating the western societies and the rest of the world.

There were very strong feelings – on the part of the western countries, regarding possible misuse of clauses on SPAM, security and internet governance. While all of this was excluded from the final text, a surprise and confusing vote requested by a divisive Iran brought the issue back to politics. This was a strategic mistake. Any voting should have been avoided by the chair of the meeting, via diplomatic management, and this situation toughened the position of the western world, many of whom consequently decided not to sign the Treaty.

There was very little logic in that decision, as all the contentious issues had been removed – for example, the word 'internet' does not appear at all in the text. Those not signing sent out the very clear message to the rest of the world that the sentiment expressed during this voting was seen as politically motivated and that this underlying sentiment was unacceptable to the western countries.

In the end the USA got basically everything it wanted and many issues that it specifically objected to were even as such included in the text of the Treaty, clearly indicating what the Treaty was not about (eg, not about content-related aspects of telecommunications). These additions have further strengthened the position of non-interference and the fact that the Treaty was signed by 89 countries that were seen by the west as sitting on the other side of the fence could be seen as a win for the west. However, this was not acknowledged in a positive way by the western countries and in the end it was the political undertone from earlier discussions – and in particular the vote – that forced the countries that did not sign to send out a very strong message relating to the freedom of the internet, thus causing the collapse of a unified approach.

While there are understandable concerns among the western world – which are shared by BuddeComm – the reality is that the conference further highlighted the American dominance of the internet and the intertwining of national and commercial interests. In he current Internet governance process anyone can get involved - countries, companies, engineers, advocates, network operators, etc. This process is largely free of international politics. However, he United States government has (limited) rights of veto in this system due to its historic role in establishing it. It could be envisaged that for example in a situation of conflict or war these veto rights could be used.

This is the cause of considerable anxiety amongst other countries and therefore pressure from the rest of the world to achieve a more balanced approach to global oversight of the underlying telecoms infrastructure will only increase. Perhaps a more conciliatory approach would have been advantageous for the western countries, as the emerging economies are only going to increase in global importance. The only real way forward is to cooperate, not to divide. If WCIT-12 is indeed the start of further division then the international telecommunications community will have tough times ahead, and all of us will be the losers then.

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About the Author

Paul Budde derives income from consulting to the telcommunications industry as in independent adviser. He has no shareholdings in the sector.

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