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David Talbot

A View from David Talbot

Sneak Preview of the UN’s First Confab on Internet Regulation

  • November 28, 2012

You’ve heard of Wikileaks.  If you’re into the future of Internet control, regulation, and pricing, you can visit Wcitleaks, which is posting a steady stream of documents relating to the upcoming World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), which isn’t open to the public, and starts next week in Dubai.

The conference is being thrown by the International Telecommunications Union,  a United Nations agency that is considering, for the first time, how the U.N. might regulate the Internet though updates to its International Telecommunication Regulations.  The agency historically sets worldwide standards and does things like coordinate use of radio spectrum.  But it hasn’t updated its regulations since 1988, and thus has no Internet policy or regulation.

The ITU is composed of 193 member states and 700 private organizations. Many of them are bringing their agendas to the table–some of which are showing up on Wcitleaks. The Russian Federation, for example, says it wants “to regulate the national Internet segment, as well as the activities within their territory of operating agencies providing Internet access or carrying Internet traffic.” The Russian plan would include control over naming and numbering websites, something now done by a U.S.-based group called ICANN.

By contrast, the United States has weighed in as opposing any new United Nations role, politely suggesting that the U.N. should butt out, arguing that “the Internet has evolved to operate in a separate and distinct environment that is beyond the scope or mandate of the ITRs or the International Telecommunication Union.”

A European association of telecom companies, meanwhile, has sketched a proposal for pricing the dispatching of Internet traffic, so that content generators would have to pay the operators of networks the content passes through—sort of like postage on a letter. That’s an idea bitterly opposed by Google and other major companies.  Indeed, Google has launched a campaign to fight regulation, calling for a “free and open Web” and denouncing the “closed-door” meeting in Dubai, which it says could lead to censorship and regulation that would hinder free speech.  

 An ITU executive has responded indignantly to Google’s broadside, saying that U.N. internet regulations, if any, would do no such thing–and that the larger U.N. aim is to help the Internet “deliver social and economic benefits in every nation on earth, including across every sector.” 

Beyond all of the posturing, it’s worth keeping in mind that more than 4.5 billion of the world’s 7 billion people lack Internet access today.

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