The World Conference on International Telecommunications this week will bring together 193 countries to discuss the future of the internet.
Chaired by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) the conference will review the regulations that manage the telecommunication industry. The body is in place to establish and maintain international standards, coordinate shared global use of the radio spectrum and improve telecommunication infrastructures. Cyber security, accessibility and financing new infrastructure in developing markets are the main topics on the agenda.
The conference has caused a stir in the online world. As the governing body for ‘any transmission, emission or reception or signs, signals, writing, images and sounds or intelligence of any nature by wired, radio, optical or other electromagnetic systems’, the internet falls into this category. However so does every other form of telecommunication. Google, along with over 100 other organisation have registered concerns arguing that the union cannot use the same regulations for the internet as with other mediums.
Critics are also concerned that the ITU is trying to take the steering wheel of the internet. The body has regulated telecommunications since the introduction of telegrams, many believe the internet is such a new and every changing tool that the union should stick to regulating the telecommunications they have been for all these years and not interfere with the internet. The internet has grown and developed into the free, accessible source it is today through a series of private agreements. The interference of intergovernmental regulations would give the one union unnecessary power.
A non-bias body to regulate the internet is what the ITU are proposing, but fears that they are not as neutral as they claim have also been highlighted in the concerns registered. ITU have spoken about the need for a balance between protecting privacy and the right to communicate and protecting against criminal activity. These comments suggest the ITU feels it has a responsibility to secure the internet and not simply provide a place for such issues to be discussed.
The way the conference has been designed mean that only governments are granted a vote. Organisations such as Google and Cisco will be present at the conference but will only be a part of the voting procedure if they are a delegate of a certain government. The lack of a multi stakeholder approach has been viewed by many as unfair.
Net neutrality is a topic many of the non-governmental organisations are have raised concerns about. There have been proposals submitted that suggest a traffic tax that charges organisations for users to access their information. This type of two tier system with network operators would lead to priority for paid services. This would completely rule out net neutrality.
Until recently the threat from ITU wasn’t feared by many. But since the conference and the publishing of the proposals many governments and organisations are fearful for the future of the internet. Although all proposals are dependent on a vast majority vote, it is still possible for the more radical proposals to be voted in. Of course the regulations would then have to implemented by local laws before they took any effect.
There are topics that have proved to be universally supported such as increasing accessibility, reducing fraud and combatting spam. The treaty sets out general principles for assuring the free flow of information around the world, promoting affordable and equitable access for all and laying the foundation for on-going innovation and market growth. The regulations were last negotiated in Australia in 1988, and there is broad consensus that the text now needs to be updated to reflect the dramatically different information and communication technology landscape of the 21st century. The two week conference will conclude on December 14th.