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It’s Not Paranoia if They Are Really After You!

In the latest development from the World Conference on International Telecommunications, a new “compromise proposal” has been leaked to wcitleaks.org. This proposal is certainly no compromise, as it not only is a bald faced power grab by the sponsors (Russia, UAE, China, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Sudan at this point), but shows a stunning lack of comprehension of how the Internet works and how it is currently governed. It also shows that the coalition of Civil Society groups and private sector organisations that have focused on WCIT have been correct all along. There are UN Member States that would like nothing better than to take over the Internet to control content and to try and remake it in the image of the international telephony system.

The most egregious of the paragraphs in this proposal refer to routing, naming and addressing, to wit:

(management of Identification resources)
31B 3A.2 Member States shall have equal rights to manage the Internet, including in regard to the allotment, assignment and reclamation of Internet numbering, naming, addressing and identification resources and to support for the operation and development of basic Internet infrastructure.

This is either completely meaningless or incredibly dangerous to the day to day operation of the current Internet depending on interpretation. If one considers that Member States already have “equal rights” to participate in the current Internet governance regime (some would say they have more than equal rights given the exalted position of the GAC inside ICANN), then this is redundant text that should be removed. However, a more pernicious interpretation is that the ITU would entirely replace the existing institutions that have been responsible for naming and addressing with a completely intergovernmental model.

Why they have proposed this seeming non-starter is anybody’s guess, as no mechanism exists for nation states to force the naming and addressing bodies to hand over responsibilities to an intergovernmental body. In fact there are contracts, policy documents and MoU’s in place that would absolutely prevent it. The authors and the ITU staff who helped edit this proposal surely know this (and if they don’t know, that in itself shows willful ignorance of how the current system works).

Seemingly, some of the Arab States who saw their previous proposal to form an intergovernmental Regional Internet Registry sent to a Working Group to die a quiet death are thinking that proposing direct control of Internet numbering resources is a good second choice. ICP-2 is the document that precludes the ITU from forming their own RIR (they could actually do it if it only served Antarctica but that isn’t an attractive option for the ITU), so they have proposed:

(Fundamental Right)
31F 3B.1 Member states have the right to manage all naming, numbering, addressing and identification resources used for international telecommunications/ICT services within their territories.

Not only is this a complete rejection of the current system, but it is completely unworkable idea. Say for example I have registered a .ug domain name (which I have), but the webserver is located in the USA. Is that .ug domain name used for international telecommunications/ICT services within the USA or is it used in Uganda? The answer is both, but no one would suggest that the .ug ccTLD be managed by the USA. Nevertheless, that is what 31F 3B.1 says! Another example is that Autonomous System numbers (inter-domain routing identifiers) frequently cover multiple countries or regions, so who gets to “manage them” when they are used by routers in many nations to determine where to send traffic??

In terms of routing, the proposal introduces much more unworkable ideas:

30 3.3 Operating agencies shall determine by mutual agreement which international routes are to be used. A Member State has the right to know the international route of its traffic where technically feasible.


1/7 1.4 In cases where one or more international routes have been established by agreement between administrations/operating agencies and where traffic is diverted unilaterally by the administration/operating agency of origin to an international route which has not been agreed with the administration/operating agency of destination,the terminal shares payable to the administration/operating agency of destination shall be the same as would have been due to it had the traffic been routed over the agreed primary route and the transit costs are borne by the administration/operating agency of origin, unless the administration/operating agency of destination is prepared to agree to a different share.

Currently routers forward packets based on economic choices made by the owner of that router. The two modifications above change that paradigm completely, giving Nation States the ability to control the choice of provider networks that packets transit. In addition, if an ISP tries to skirt these “toll booths”, they still have to pay for traffic that would have transited the “agreed” network. In other words, even though a provider did not receive service from a provider, they still have to pay for services they didn’t receive! This would seem counter-intuitive to most people, but when you understand that there is no mechanism built in to the current routing protocol to count traffic in this way, it enters the realm of the absurd.

Fred Baker, Adrian Farrel and Benoit Claise have written an excellent primer on routing for regulators at WCIT, which it seems none of the authors of this proposal have read. In it they conclude by saying:

“Maybe increased connectivity between ASes through IXPs will magnify the
benefits of Internet connectivity, will attract more local online business, and
provide a significant economic stimulus as larger percentages of the population
are able to get on line. Perhaps these benefits will go some way to offset the lost
revenues from the declining legacy telephone systems. What is the for sure is
that using DPI to monitor and charge VoIP calls in the same old way ... will
simply not work!”

Internet infrastructure (IXPs, submarine and other fiber builds, data centers, etc.) have developed outside of a treaty body. Internetworking is done between networks, not between Member States. Trying to retrofit the Internet to include toll-booths and points of governmental control at this point is self-defeating. During the last revision of the ITRs, revenue from international voice calls were the golden eggs laid by the telephony golden goose, but the Internet has disrupted that model to the point where the ITRs are an anachronism that is no longer of great utility. Ultimately, it will be end-user customers of the affected businesses that will pay the price for the type of folly.

Of course, some cynics suspect this “compromise text” is a tactical ploy in a much longer game, that diplomats are human and don’t want to be seen as the cause of a failed international treaty conference, that the USA and its “Hands Off the Internet” allies will tire of saying “No” and eventually relent to some of their bad ideas. It’s also possible that the USA will throw Russia a bone in hopes of getting their cooperation in other areas of international relations (think Syria).

This proposal shows that those who were concerned about the agenda of some ITU Member States and the Secretariat were right. They are out to take over the Internet, they just weren’t honest about it. The ITU does useful work in, inter alia, spectrum and satellite slot allocation. They should stick to those tasks and if they really want to help spread the edge of the network to the billions who don’t yet have access, perhaps they should focus on access issues instead of asserting intergovernmental control over things they clearly don’t understand.

William S. Burroughs wrote “Paranoia is just having the right information”. It turns out that the folk who have had great concerns about WCIT over the last year were not paranoid, they just had the right information.

By McTim, Internet policy and governance consultant

Filed Under


An inaccurate assessment of the situation Phillip Hallam-Baker  –  Dec 10, 2012 6:01 PM

I don’t see why anyone would imagine that Russia and China are not capable of pushing ICANN aside if they choose. Either country could simply announce that they will be taking over allocation of IPv6 address space, announce the prefixes they intend to use and the rest of the Internet would just fall in line.

IPv6 space is essentially unlimited. There is no reason for any party to have a monopoly on any part of the process. The situation with IPv4 is rather different as that has actually run out but that is not a control point that the US could use against Russia or China (because they have run out).

The sovereign powers do actually have a point here. And I don’t see that the ICANN people understand what that point is. Even the KGB types (whats the new name, Altria?) who visited Crocker couldn’t convince him that yes they really did care about this issue.

I can’t see why it matters either. The authoritarian powers still face the same technical and political difficulties when they try to control the Internet. They cab build a wall round themselves but East Germany did not fall because of Reagan’s eloquent rhetoric as US wingnuts fervently believe, it collapsed because ordinary East Germans were protesting to ordinary East Germans. Putin is not afraid of Western liberal media, nor should he be. But he is scared witless of Pussy Riot.

Russia and China can do what they want with their domestic Internet regardless of what the ITU decides. And folk who know what they are doing will be working around it.

The toll booth thing is an attempt to co-opt the support of the tin pot countries where the voice call tolls were a major source of revenue (and corruption). It would actually be very easy for the countries involved to impose tolls given their current infrastructure which is already highly centralized and under direct government control. But its nonsense from an economic point of view as it isn’t in the interests of the rich countries to pay along.

The reason that voice calls earn lots of money is that the government of Tinpotatia can set their calling tariff at $1/min and there are enough people living in rich countries trying to call home for the system to rake in cash. If Tinpotatia tries to set up an Internet toll booth and charge the same they simply find themselves de-peered and off the Internet. It isn’t in the interests of Google or whoever to pay the blackmail rates. So instead of this being a tax that is paid by rich countries to poor it is a new tax poor countries impose on themselves as the rates would ultimately be paid by the ISP subscribers.

Does RPKI not change this game? McTim  –  Dec 11, 2012 7:07 PM

Hi Phillip,

in reply to one of my earlier pieces on the same topic, you wrote:

“The real question would be whether backbone providers were prepared to route it. And that in turn is really a function of how badly the powers that want to challenge ICANN want that to happen and whether anyone is willing to go to the mat to defend ICANN’s turf for them.”

Which I think is correct and still applies.  I think there would be a number of upstream providers with who would decline to route the Tinpotatia prefixes.  That is just conjecture on my part however.

What is more interesting is the implications of RPKI on Tinpotatian prefixes, since RPKI implies hierarchy, and Tinpotatia would lie outside of that hierarchy.

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