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On the Need to Separate the Telecom Business Agenda from Government Policy

At Guadalajara, Mexico this week, in the policy debate kicked off by the ITU, Russian Federation’s Minister of Communications proposed that the ITU should give itself veto power over ICANN decisions.

This proposal by the Regional Commonwealth in the field of Communications (RCC) calls for the ICANN Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) to be scrapped and replaced by an ITU group.

ITU’s formation and existence deviates from the ancient wisdom behind the philosophy (not quote verbatim) that “a nation’s capital should be situated as farther away from the sea shore as possible”: (merchants congregate near the sea; if the capital is close to the sea, merchants would have proximity to the members of the Government, so there is greater likelihood of the merchants corrupting the politicians). In violation of this ancient wisdom, Telecom corporations have been inexplicably granted the unique advantage of being seated alongside Government at the ITU. This anomalous position makes it possible for the telecoms to exercise an undue influence in government Policy.

The ITU was established because telegraphic communication needed to be standardized for interoperability across continents. ITU established standards for telegraphic and phone communication.

Governments chose to be part of the ITU when Governments owned telecom corporations. Over time, most Governments have withdrawn their stakes in their telecommunication corporations, but haven’t detached themselves from the business that no longer was owned by Governments. (The co-participation of Government and Business at the ITU is quite different from a multi-stockholder model where ALL stakeholders are seated around a table with a definite balance)

This status for telecoms at the ITU is a rare status, not conferred upon the business unions of any other industry, for instance on the Association of Airlines or Ocean Liners. From this one of a kind business-Government relationship, theoretically a lot of good could happen, but in reality, it is a situation of a persistent danger of government policy being influenced and steered in the direction desired by commercial interests.

The ITU has the facade of an inter-governmental Treaty organization making Inter-Governmental Public Policy but in reality it is overwhelmingly a commercial business union driven more by commercial pursuits than by non-commercial public interest.

The concern of the telecom members of the ITU is that they should govern and control the entire realm of communications, wired and wireless, terrestial and spatial. The ITU already sets policies and rules in all communication, with the exception of the Internet: Telegraphs, telephones, mobile phones and it also manages satellite communications and the RF spectrum.

Spectrum allocation hasn’t been a fair and transparent exercise, and the Industry has been resistant to the idea of an open spectrum eco-system. For the sake of argument, if we consider a situation where Civil Society partnered with Governments in place of telecoms, we would have made greater progress toward an open spectrum policy. But this does not happen when inter-governmental policy is made at the ITU where the Telecom Businesses virtually draft policy on Government Paper.

Another area where the ITU effectively misleads Governments in making policy is in the area of Internet Security. ITU’s Security focus appeals to the Governments; Conversely, the Security concerns of Governments suit the business participants of the ITU. The game plan adopted by the ITU is to disproportionately exaggerate the security concerns with a view to position itself as defenders of Internet Security and bring in ITU’s Security centric re-architectural proposals which would ultimately migrate the Internet to Telecom friendly business models. ITU’s security agenda requires special attention and a separate analysis.

ITU’s idea of an Internet was a networking solution provided by telecom companies on a commercial business model. ITU tried to take charge of the Internet in the early days of Internet. This did not happen as the Internet took shape as a free and open medium. The Internet evolved to be way beyond the purview of the ITU and it took shape on its own.

The Internet, as a free and open medium, threatened the business models of telecom companies as technologies such as email, VOIP began to be adopted worldwide. New Internet technologies that gave birth to Innovative Internet enterprises such as Skype became phenomenally successful. These enterprises did not obey ITU rules and significantly threatened telecom revenues.

The freedom of the Internet is because of its open architecture and due to such principles as the end to end principle, all of which could be easily redefined to suit ITU’s commercial interests if the task of Internet architecture and Internet standards comes under the ITU umbrella. So the ITU tried to interject itself in the Internet Standards process. This did not happen.

The Critical Internet Resources could be brought under the ITU umbrella by taking over ICANN which the ITU considers vulnerable. That could ensure a technical dominance of the Internet by the ITU. This was not easy when the ITU made its bid on its own.

Now the proposal for veto powers to ITU over the decisions of GAC comes from a Government participating at its Plenipotentiary.

ITU’s World Telecommunication Policy Forum and its Plenipotentiary are its major events that project the ITU as a Policy making organization and to further its role in policy making. As an ITU organized event, the Plenipotentiary has the Agendas of the Telecom Businesses subtly interwoven in all policy debates and proposals. The Russian proposal arises in this telecom setting, so it is difficult to see this as a Government proposal free of business influence.

The answer has to The Guadalajara proposal may have to come from GAC. GAC could respond by prompting their Governments to review the role of the ITU in Government Policy. It is time The ITU is balanced to the fair level of any other Business Association such as Airlines or Ocean liners.

It is time that the Governments reminded themselves of the ancient wisdom of “staying father away from sea shore”.

By Sivasubramanian M, Proprietor, Nameshop

Views expressed here are those of the author’s only. Sivasubramanian Muthusamy also contributes to the Wealthy World weblog located here.

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Exellent analysis...just one nit to pick McTim  –  Oct 9, 2010 5:57 PM

The proposal as reported in a variety of places is short:

“Consideration should be given to the expediency of having the functions of GAC carried out by a specially-constituted group within ITU with the authority to veto decisions adopted by the ICANN Board of Directors. If it is so decided, the ITU Secretary-General should be instructed to consult ICANN on the matter.”

So what the ITU is seeking is direct veto power over ICANN Board decisions. 

If this actually gets adopted by the ITU, and the ITU “consults” with ICANN over vetoing their Board decisions,  I think that ICANN should recycle Mr. Toure’s reply to Mr. Beckstrom when ICANN asked for observer status at the Plenipotentiary Meeting: “I regret to inform you that we are unable to respond positively to your request”

Veto in a California Non-Profit Corporation? Sivasubramanian M  –  Oct 9, 2010 6:50 PM

Dear McTim,

Thanks for your comment.

In a discussion in the at-Large list it was pointed out that a California non-profit ICANN cannot give anyone a veto over the board.  There are other legal complications that make this idea of an overwhelming ITU role within the GAC.

These legal complications were probably well understood at the ITU, yet this proposal surfaced at the ITU Plenipotentiary. Irrespective of the legal feasibility or workability, this was calculatedly brought up. The Internet Community can not afford to be silent on this, because the Diplomatic impact of even this unworkable idea is unknown. It is unwise to take ITU’s strategic mischief so lightly.

Proposals get brought up there - like bills get introduced in a parliament Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Oct 10, 2010 2:51 PM

Was this resolution adopted at the plenipot by a majority of ITU member states? In which case waxing all serious about this would be a good idea. If it doesn't get consensus support - it stops there, in that particular plenipot, before possibly being raised at a new one.

whether or not the proposal is adopted... Sivasubramanian M  –  Oct 11, 2010 3:41 PM

The ITU needs to be balanced, irrespective of the progress or impact of the proposal.  My argument is that a larger response is required for a permanent balance.

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