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Is WCIT Failure the Start of a Digital Cold War?

This was never part of the plan. Going into the Dubai World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) two weeks ago, there was optimism aplenty.

After weeks of online and media campaigning, proponents of a free Internet had managed to scare everyone into thinking that WCIT was tantamount to digital Armageddon. This had the effect of defusing the conference before it even started, or so it seemed…

A fortnight later, the mood isn’t so positive. International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Member States are split, bringing everyone back to the bad old days of a two-hemisphere planet, one side led by Russia, the other by the US.

1988 versus now

As a quick primer for WCIT neophytes, the conference was about agreeing on a set of rules to govern international communications. A treaty to do this exists. It is called the International Telecommunication Regulation (ITR), but dates back to 1988. The world has changed a lot since then, including this new little thing called the Internet, so the ITU rightly felt it was about time to update the treaty.

Well it sounded like a good idea at the time…

The Internet has certainly changed things. “The word ‘Internet’ was repeated throughout this conference and I believe this is simply a recognition of the current reality—the two worlds of telecommunications and Internet are inextricably linked,” ITU chief Hamadoun Touré was quoted as saying by the New York Times.

As the WCIT progressed, so it became clear that the Web would be the main stumbling block. Absent from the current ITR, references to the Internet were to be included in the revised treaty. America and its allies (now there’s a phrase straight out of the cold war if ever there was one) strongly opposed this, citing fears that including Internet oversight in a UN treaty would lead to government control of the world’s network. And when the governments in question have a dodgy track record on privacy, freedom of expression and democracy, that is indeed a worry.

By the end of the conference, the proposed new treaty had split the attending national delegations. The US-led coalition has refused to sign. In addition to the US, this includes Canada and several European countries that have what could be called a “Western mentality”. Russia leads the other side, with developing countries from the African continent and places like China and some Arab states in tow.

Slipping under governments’ radar

So what does all this diplomatic posturing mean for the man in the street? You and I in other words…

In the short term, not much. The new ITR is not set to be implemented for a couple of years and even if the treaty as drafted in Dubai does stick, there are no legal obligations for countries to follow its terms.

But more than the treaty itself, it’s the difference between the world’s states on their approaches to the Internet that’s a worry. The Internet is what it is today because it is the homogeneous sum of vastly disparate parts. True, in 1998 the US did create the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to manage policy for the Internet’s names, numbers (IP addresses) and the corresponding technical protocols, but there is no World Internet Government as such.

Those who created the Internet, people like former ICANN Chair and current Google Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf, will tell you that’s a good thing. Louis Pouzin, the French scientist who invented some of the Internet’s core technologies, describes those early times as working away from governmental prying eyes. “That’s precisely why we were able to create something like the Internet,” Pouzin has often told me. “By staying under the governments’ radar. No-one really knew or cared about what we were doing.”

Enhanced cooperation

Keeping governments out of the Internet is no longer an option of course. Nor would most people want it to be. After all, many governments take their roles as the keepers of the public interest very seriously. Most users would not want a lawless Internet where cyber-crooks of all ilk would be free to prey on the innocent or technically unwary.

So the problem isn’t individual governments per se, it’s all governments together. Because that can result in situations like the UN unable to take action on Syria because a small number of Member States prefer to put their own interests before the thousands of lives being lost at the hands of that country’s brutal regime.

On the Internet, such UN-style deadlocks might lead to a failed WCIT, or they might have more serious repercussions. Like a fractured Internet for instance. And once the Web stops being united, i.e. users in France and users in Brazil can no longer see the same content or even send each other email, that’s probably not good.

One really positive development happened on the very first day of the WCIT, when the ITU and ICANN bosses came together to broadcast a mutual message of respective roles for the two bodies that had previously been seen as rivals both aiming to govern the Internet. To the ITU telecommunications networks in general. To ICANN the Internet’s naming and addressing system. Each organisation serving real needs and pursuing real purposes that, while interlinked, are not mutually exclusive.

ITU’s Hamadoun Touré and ICANN’s Fadi Chehadé gave the WCIT attendees a message of hope that even past differences of opinion can be resolved for the common good. Let’s hope the world’s governments see that same light as the close to 3 billion Internet users they serve now wait for WCIT 2012’s true aftermath.

By Stéphane Van Gelder, Consultant

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