Nothing less than the future of the Internet is on the agenda this week at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12). Then again, perhaps it’s not, but the entire global technology world has it’s eyes squarely focused on Dubai for the next two weeks as the UN’s bureaucratic agency in charge of international telecommunications, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), convenes its meeting to discuss possible revisions to International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs). In general, these ITRs are pretty dry, but with possible discussion of a change to Internet governance on the agenda, “netizens” everywhere are taking notice and sounding the warning alarms.
Concerns stem from leaked proposals from ITU member states, including Russia, that call for a more centralized approach to Internet government. Currently Internet governance is incredibly decentralized, with non-government organizations such as ICANN, IETF, ISOC and IGF setting global standards and policies. This governance model has driven the Internet’s incredible growth, with more than 2 billion worldwide Internet users and more than $8 trillion in transactions conducted online each year. Many fear that a centralized approach could alter the Internet landscape in a way that slows it advancement and grinds innovation to a halt.
There are heavy hitters on both sides of the debate. Most Western countries, including he United States and the majority of Europe, along with major tech companies such as Google and Facebook, are supporting the status quo. Essentially, they say that if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. That’s hard to argue with.
Their concerns, however, go far beyond this. Many believe a centralized approach will allow authoritarian regimes more control over Internet content, thus increasing threats to freedom of speech. Additionally, and perhaps more concerning, is the fear that centralized control by an agency such as the ITU could lead to an old-school regulatory regime that allows for access and connection charges. This means a country could charge Internet companies and websites for access to their market, which would be an enormous threat to the current business model that exists online.
On the side arguing for a centralized governance model are a number of more authoritarian regimes such as Russia and China, but also numerous countries from the developing world and some traditional telecommunications companies. Most arguments for centralized Internet governance are made around the need for better global coordination on cyber security and the need for the developing world to have a greater say in the future of the Internet. Perhaps the greatest potential prize for these countries though would be the ability to better monetize market access.
The ITU has publicly said it has no interest in taking over governance of the Internet, but that it will listen to proposals from member states. The reality is that the ITU likely does not have the mandate or capacity to lead Internet governance, but it is feasible to see them trying to carve out a piece of it.
As with most tech lovers, I side with those in favor of the current model. The Internet is perhaps the most amazing crowd-sourced innovation in history and trying to manage it in a more traditional manner seems like an attempt by outdated entities to stay relevant in the digital age. Voices from the developing world certainly need to better accounted for, and the organizations currently leading Internet governance should work to be more inclusive. However, any centralized approach, especially in a body such as the ITU, will likely only hinder the development of the Internet by creating bottlenecks with slow review processes and non-aligned member states. And of course, in the ITU, only members states can vote, so outside interests such as Internet freedom groups, innovative businesses and the everyday global citizen, lose their voice.
With such powerful players opposing a UN-Internet takeover, it’s unlikely WCIT-12 will lead to major changes for the Internet, but I’ll certainly be following developments very closely. What are you thoughts on the Internet governance debate?