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ITU denies plans for global internet power-grab

Details sticky WC-IT plans for online rewiring

The ITU has finalized its proposals for rewriting the regulations governing internet traffic, which will be decided at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WC-IT) being held in Dubai this December.

The eleven-day conference will host the rewriting of the international telecommunication regulations (ITRs) that govern the world's communications traffic. This will be the first revision since the last conference in 1988, and the ITU Secretary-General Dr Hamadoun Touré said that change was essential to kick-start the "knowledge economy."

But worrisome proposals for taxing communications, reworking the system of DNS controls, and abandoning network neutrality have been leaked, and even the paralyzingly fractious US Congress has been concerned enough to manage a unanimous resolution reminding the Obama administration of the importance of an open internet.

At a press conference in Geneva on Friday, the director of the ITU's standards bureau Malcolm Johnson said that the final proposals had now been hammered out and would be distributed to members shortly. World regions will have a final meeting to decide a common agenda ahead of the talks to try and make consensus easier.

"We have a long tradition of cooperation and consensus building," Touré said. "People may have differences but I believe that we can have friction of ideas, and from friction comes life."

The proposals cover a broad range of areas, even down to trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help the disabled online, but the key proposals that have been causing much concern (repeatedly described at the press conference as "delicate issues") are all there: taxation, traffic management, routing, and the worryingly unspecific "general principles on economic issues".

One area the ITU seeks to repeatedly reassure about, however, is that the organization has no intention of trying to wrest control of the internet by regulation. Fears of a UN takeover of the online world have been touted by some, but the ITU is firm in its denial.

"There has been some mention that somehow the ITU would give itself overall worldwide regulatory authority," said ITU facilitator Richard Hill. "There are no proposals along those lines. The proposals are that the individual countries should take action in these particular areas."

Nevertheless, concerns are there. Part of the problem is that the ITU has not been very forthcoming with proposal information. Those documents that have come into circulation, thanks in large part to the wcitleaks website set up to publish them, could alarm "credulous members of the public," Touré said, but Friday's document dump shows almost nothing of the crucial wording of the proposals, only their general outlines.

On network neutrality, for example, the ITU's briefing paper states "it has been proposed to replace 'minimum quality of service' in Article 4.3 with 'satisfactory quality of service,' while administrations should ensure that there is transparency in this area so consumers know exactly what they are getting," which could cover a multitude of sins.

"They seem concerned, on defensive, over the transparency issue," Eli Dourado, cofounder of wcitleaks and research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, told The Register. However, there wasn't enough information out there as yet, and he said wcitleaks would continue to try and fill the gap.

Dourado also pointed out that the current ITR system was certainly working well enough for the time being, and even the telecommunications industry is split on the need for change – US operators are broadly happy with the current state of play while Europe hungers for a chance to rewrite the rules.

While some non-state organizations will be at the WC-IT conference, it's not for you nor me. The public might be granted access to some of the discussion sessions – it depends if the delegates decide to allow it – and webcasts are planned. But Dubai is a long way to go on the off-chance of getting in, although the weather in the United Arab Emirates is delightfully warm during the cold Northern winter months.

"It's hardly reassuring to see governments, and those industry organizations that are able to pay the significant membership dues, will go off to this luxurious spot and tell us everything will be just fine," Harold Feld, legal director of internet advocacy group Public Knowledge, told The Register.

WC-IT was being dogged by lurid rumors of a takeover by the UN, but this wasn't the case, he explained. But some of the changes being discussed would have profound effects of the internet and its users, notably in terms of civil rights.

At the same time, there is a growing momentum for change. Plenty of countries are unhappy at the amount of influence the US has over internet policy and management, he said, and traditional telecommunications firms might long for the good old days of monopoly as they fight to stay profitable in the internet age.

One complicating factor is the US presidential election. The identity of the next president will have been decided by this December, but the presidency won't officially enter its next term until the inauguration in January. If President Obama loses, this would leave negotiators in Dubai who know they will be fired upon their return.

To complicate things further, if Mitt Romney does enter the Oval Office, then the Republican Party – which has a somewhat rocky relationship with the UN – may not be keen to sign up to the policies decided by the oh-so-socialist Democrats. But they may have little choice, since Congress doesn't get to vote on the new ITR, Feld explained.

This would be a modification to an existing treaty that the US has already signed and ratified, and so technically can go through on the nod. The US first signed up to telecommunications treaties with the ITU over a century ago, back when the telegraph was king, so special measures would be needed if the regulations were to be stopped – and the results could be unfortunate.

"The US reserves the right to disregard ITRs," Feld explained. "But if everyone else agrees to implement them and the US is the only holdout, then it doesn't leave you in a good place." ®

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