September 3, 2012

The Most Important Meeting You've Never Heard Of


            In December the nations of the world will gather in Dubai for the UN-convened World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT – pronounced “wicket”). The topic of the meeting is nothing less than the regulation of the Internet.

            The Internet, coupled with mobile connectivity, has vastly improved the lives of the people of the world. It wasn’t until mobile came to the developing nations of the world that the first billion people could make a phone call (2001). Today there are six billion mobile subscriptions in a world of seven billion people. What’s more, most of the world’s young people will experience the Internet for the first time on a mobile device – opening new worlds of knowledge, commerce and opportunity. In response to these beneficial breakthroughs, some of the governments of the world have decided they should take control.

            Under the auspices of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) the governments of the world will review the international treaty known as the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITR). The last review of the ITR was in 1988 when the Internet was just aborning. The remarkable and reshaping growth of the Internet provides the excuse for the new review. What’s really afoot, however, is an effort by some nations to rebalance the Internet in their favor by reinstituting telecom regulatory concepts from the last century.

            For countries such as India, South Africa and Brazil, for instance, WCIT is an opportunity to get back into the action, including grabbing a piece of the Internet’s revenue. In the good old days of the telephone network, nations (and their national carrier) could apply tariffs and other regulations to those connecting with their network. Not only does the belief linger that tribute should continue be paid, but also there is a hunger to redirect the Internet’s revenue stream. It is, of course, perverse that the nations that have proportionally benefited the most from the introduction of mobile technology and need to similarly ride the wave of Internet-driven economic growth should seek to redesign the structure that has proven so successful for their people.

            For other countries like China and Russia WCIT offers the chance to place controls on the freedom of the Internet. Seemingly benign proposals to allow for regulation related to “crime” and “security” would grant international imprimatur to the exertion of control over Internet content. The recent sentencing of Russian punk rockers Pussy Riot is illustrative in this regard. The Putin-protesting group was sentenced to jail for being a “crude violation of the social order,” a legal construction that WCIT could permit to be extended to the Internet and justified as “within international accords.”

            For the ITU itself WCIT is an opportunity to grow its bureaucratic reach. Founded in 1850, at the dawn of the telegraph, the ITU’s power reached its apex in the era of state-run PTTs. The privatization of national phone companies and the introduction of competitive carriers sent the ITU scrambling for relevance. The predecessor of the World Trade Organization (WTO) fought in the 1980s to keep the ITU from regulating new mobile and Internet services (and won). A new set of international regulations, thus, becomes the ITU’s last gasp to reverse the earlier decision and give itself the same role in the Information Age that it enjoyed in the Industrial Age.

            Up until this point, the activities of the various WCIT participants are rather predictable. Repressive governments want to curtail Internet Freedom. Developing nations want a share of the Internet revenue pie. International bureaucrats want to keep their jobs and expand their relevance.

            The surprise comes from European carriers. Or perhaps, considering their lineage, it shouldn’t be a surprise.

            The European Telecommunications Network Operators (ETNO) is lobbying to have the ITR regulate the so-called “over the top” users of the Internet. In a position admirable for its chutzpah if not its substance, ETNO wants the ITR not to regulate carrier activities, but to add new regulation to heretofore regulated companies such as Google, Netflix and others who use carrier networks. It is another last-ditch effort to return to the days when regulators protected carriers from the nasty realities of innovation and competition.

            That mobile and the Internet stimulate all of this sturm and drang should not come as a surprise. The self-interested efforts to force the new networks into an old regulatory box are a reflection of the growing pains of a network-defined world. The insecurity and stress of change always stimulates a desire to retreat to the comfort of the past. WCIT represents a venue where the forces of the status quo can make their stand. It is a struggle between nation-states (and their vassals) created in an era when networks aggregated economic and political power, and the new era in which the network’s distributed architecture has a disaggregating effect on both economic and political power.

            Interestingly, it was amidst the storm and stress of a previous network revolution that the concept of the nation-state was born. As 16th century printers spewed forth ideas that brought down the Holy Roman Empire, Europe was plunged into more than a century of war. The conclusion of that conflagration was the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and a new world order in which nation-states replaced empires and fiefdoms.

The core of the new sovereignty was the power of geography.   Physical borders coalesced groups within their boundaries while at the same time geographic space provided a buffering from outside forces. Today’s network, however, defies geography.  Westphalian sovereignty, defined as control of a piece of the map, is increasingly irrelevant to an economy built on information products that can circle the globe in less time than it takes for a keystroke.

In the words of Alec Ross, a senior U.S. State Department official, “Networks are more important than nations.” And in the ultimate anti-hierarchy, the new network has organized itself to be overseen by a “multi-stakeholder process” of independent actors spread across the globe. This new stateless network, in turn, enables others to organize in a similar stateless (or perhaps supra-state) structure. Multinational corporations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), militant non-state groups such as al Qaeda, and intergovernmental institutions (IGOs) such as the World Bank and European Commission all utilize the new network to supersede the Westphalian structure.

Meetings such as WCIT are certainly preferable to the armed conflict of previous network revolutions. But the issues being argued are in many ways the same: as technology transforms how we connect, the institutions of the day – whether governments or corporations – fight to cling to the comfy world they have known. It’s a tale as old as time.

The U.S. delegation to WCIT, led by telecom veteran Ambassador Terry Kramer, will have its hands full keeping international regulators away from the Internet. Amazingly, the processes of the ITU are traditionally conducted without public transparency. WCIT is no different. The future of the open and free Internet is being determined through a secret closed process. Fortunately, the U.S. government is making the secret submissions available to interested American parties. The open and free Internet has also sprung to its own defense through the establishment of “WCITleaks,” a Web site where the non-public submissions by various nations are exposed to the sunlight. It is a poignant example of why international regulators must not get their hands around the Internet’s throat.

What happens in Dubai is a Big Deal. Far from “just another international meeting,” the consequences of WCIT could be as far-reaching on our future as strategic arms negotiations. It is the most important meeting you’ve never heard of.