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Big Telegraph


On my flight back from Washington, DC last night, I prepared much of what follows, minus references. Today, while looking for references, I uncovered a very recent (6 June 2012) posting to the ITU blog that seemed entirely appropriate to mention here. It is fascinating reading, and I especially like one snippet “we are not about to take over the Internet—that suggestion is frankly ridiculous”. I quite agree and hope that the ITU is genuinely interested in working with others to ensure that nothing of the sort happens.

Now on to what I had prepared.

Big Telegraph (Musings on the ITU)

The ITU maintains that WCIT 2012 is not about Internet Governance. Rather, it has been suggested that Internet Governance will be addressed at WTPF 2013, another ITU event. Attendees of the Council Working Group on WCIT preparations were told this in April of this year. What was left unsaid is that WCIT 2012 is in fact about the Internet itself and whether it will be brought under the auspices of the ITU.

ITU staff have indicated on several occasions that the Internet is already under the ITU purview, with one staffer suggesting that the Internet is really nothing but an advanced telegraph system. From an academic perspective, this is an interesting view, and one I leave to academicians to study and discuss. From a technical or practical perspective, the telegraph and Internet couldn’t be more different and while the ITU might like to think of the Internet as a “Big Telegraph”, that simply isn’t the case.

Why, besides the obvious, do I think the Internet is something else? To answer that question requires that we take a look at the ITU itself, it’s history, and its scope.


The ITU is a specialized United Nations agency covering the entire Information and Communications sector. Its membership consists of 193 Member States, some 700 private-sector entities, and is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. With the assistance of its members, the “ITU brings the benefits of modern communication technologies to people everywhere in an efficient, safe, easy and affordable manner”.

Visit the ITU’s website to learn more about it.


The ITU took its current name in 1932, though it traces its history back to 1865 with the formation of The International Telegraph Union. With the advent of telephony, the ITU formed the International Telephone Consultative Committee (CCIF) in 1924 and in 1925 the International Telegraph Consultative Committee (CCIT). In 1965 these two committees were merged to create the International Telegraph and Telephone Consultative Committee (CCITT) “to more effectively manage telephone and telegraph communications”. In 1993, the ITU adopted its current form with the CCITT becoming the ITU-T, the Telecommunications Standardization Sector.

Clearly the ITU is a well-established, well-regarded, useful, and beneficial institution as can be seen by viewing its Landmark Dates and Historical Figures in Telecommunications. What is unseen in this official history is any significant mention of the Internet, save a reference to a 1997 Memorandum of Understanding related to Domain Names and a reference to the ITU becoming a founding member of ICANN’s Protocol Supporting organization.


Like most organizations, the ITU has a charter that defines its scope, structure, and procedures. The ITU’s “basic documents” more formally describe these and also contain a set of definitions. Three terms from the Constitution, are of note; telecommunications, telegraphy, and telephony.

Telecommunication: Any transmission, emission or reception of signs, signals, writing, images and sounds or intelligence of any nature by wire, radio, optical or other electromagnetic systems.

Telegraphy: A form of telecommunication in which the transmitted information is intended to be recorded on arrival as a graphic document; the transmitted information may sometimes be presented in an alternative form or may be stored for subsequent use. Note: A graphic document records information in a permanent form and is capable of being filed and consulted; it may take the form of written or printed matter or of a fixed image.

Telephony: A form of telecommunication primarily intended for the exchange of information in the form of speech.

Additionally, the ITU Constitution in its Preamble recognizes “the sovereign right of each State” and “the growing importance of telecommunications for the preservation of peace and the economic and social development of all States” and that the parties to the Constitution agree that the object of the Union is to “facilitate peaceful relations, international cooperation among peoples and economic and social development by means of efficient telecommunications services”.

Big Telegraph?

Now back to the question, “Is the Internet just a Big Telegraph?” from a less than obvious perspective, that of the ITU. Fortunately, the ITU has provided two relatively clear definitions as guides and to establish a frame of reference.

While not part of its original design, the Internet is capable of delivering or exchanging speech, the primary function of Telephony as defined by the ITU. However, that is not the “primary” purpose of the Internet and as a consequence, the Internet does not fall under Telephony, the first of the clear definitions.

Next we look at Telegraphy, the second of the clear definitions, and see that there is a requirement of intent, this being that transmitted information be recorded in a graphic form. Others forms are “sometimes” permissible but the definition is clear that primarily, information transmitted via telegraphy will be recorded in graphic form. Again, while the Internet is capable of transmitting information that could be stored in graphic form, that is not its purpose, primary or otherwise.

Rather, the Internet is agnostic about the information it carries. Instead it leaves it up to the endpoints to determine how to interpret transmitted information. This is in fact one of the Internet’s defining characteristics, known as the end-to-end principle, first articulated in 1981. This is a significant distinction between telegraphy/telephony and the Internet and one that regulators sometimes fail to understand.

The ITU recognizes, by definition, two specific forms of telecommunication. The Internet is not encompassed by either of these singly, or in combination. It is something else and therefore to be within the purview of the ITU, it must be encompassed by the third definition, telecommunications—the catch all.

The ITU definition of Telecommunications is, in my opinion, overly broad, encompassing all forms of communication, regardless of distance, provided that the transmission is through an electromagnetic system. Tin cans, string, and the gramaphone might remain outside the ITU definition, but all modern forms of audio, video, digital photography, and computer communications (including between multi-core processors) would fall within it.

Another interpretation, one I also favor, is that the definition is thankfully narrow, given the language, indicating a fairly clear lineage to the 1840 Morse patent 1. The telltale is the term intelligence which in 1840 would have meant general information or news, and its inclusion in the specification and claims would have been significant, as proved to be true.

Today, intelligence has no such connotation and in all likelihood the term should be removed from the ITU definition in an effort to enhance clarity for a modern audience. Of course intelligence possibly refers to military or political information in which case it should remain, though this might require all nations to permit open discourse on such matters. Other terms mentioned both in the patent and the ITU definition are signs and signals suggesting that the ITU wishes to have a perpetual regulatory reach at least equivalent to a time-limited patent grant from 1840.

Interestingly, electro-magnetism, from the patent, has morphed into electromagnetic system, in the ITU definition, a term of art unlikely to have been encountered in 1840. At that time, electricity, magnetism, and their interaction were not well-understood. It was a non-trivial feat to achieve mechanical movement at a distance whether through a telegraph station or later a telephone. Electromagnets were employed to achieve the desired effect and they may have been the only electromagnetic systems known at the time. It seems reasonable to assume that the terms, intelligence, signs, signals, and electromagnetic all spring from the same source, and time.

Is the ITU definition of Telecommunications overly broad and therefore requires another specific form to include the Internet? Or is the definition to narrow, in which case it must be revised in order to allow the Internet in? Perhaps the definition is just right and requires no adjustment. Regardless, for something as important as an International Treaty Instrument, one would hope that the world’s nations would rely on something other than a default clause as the reason to regulate anything, let alone the Internet.

Bringing the Internet under the ITRs would be precedent setting and consequently deserves far more attention than a two-week conference acknowledged to not be about the Internet. I for one am glad that the WCIT will not be about the Internet, Internet Governance, or the apparently ridiculous suggestion that a UN agency would seek to take over the Internet. Time will tell. I plan to keep an open mind, and I’ll continue to post here when I think it appropriate.

Note: Much as I would like to, I can not claim any ownership of the phrase “Big Telegraph”. Rather, it came my way from a colleague who might prefer anonymity. Regardless, I am indebted.

1 Improvements in the Mode of Communicating Information by Signals by the Application of electro-magnetism (US Patent No. 1647, dated June 20, 1840).

By Bill Smith, Sr. Policy Advisor, Technology Evangelist at PayPal

(Disclaimer: While I am a PayPal employee, the opinions expressed here are my own.)

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