By Wendy M. Grossman | New Scientist
ON THE WEB, 10 December 2012
Who runs the internet? For the past 30 years, pretty much no one. Some governments might call this a bug, but to the engineers who designed the protocols, standards, naming and numbering systems of the internet, it’s a feature.
The goal was to build a network that could withstand damage and would enable the sharing of information. In that, they clearly succeeded — hence the oft-repeated line from John Gilmore, founder of digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation: “The internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” These pioneers also created a robust platform on which a guy in a dorm room could build a business that serves a billion people.
But perhaps not for much longer.
This week, 2000 people have gathered for the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to discuss, in part, whether they should be in charge.
The stated goal of the Dubai meeting is to update the obscure International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs), last revised in 1988. These relate to the way international telecom providers operate. In charge of this process is the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), an agency set up in 1865 with the advent of the telegraph. Its $200 million annual budget is mainly funded by membership fees from 193 countries and about 700 companies. Civil society groups are only represented if their governments choose to include them in their delegations. Some do, some don’t. This is part of the controversy: the WCIT is effectively a closed shop.
Vinton Cerf, Google’s chief internet evangelist and co-inventor of the TCP/IP internet protocols, wrote in May that decisions in Dubai “have the potential to put government handcuffs on the net”.
The need to update the ITRs isn’t surprising. Consider what has happened since 1988: the internet, Wi-Fi, broadband, successive generations of mobile telephony, international data centres, cloud computing. In 1988, there were a handful of telephone companies — now there are thousands of relevant providers.
Controversy surrounding the WCIT gathering has been building for months.
In May, 30 digital and human rights organisations from all over the world wrote to the ITU with three demands: first, that it publicly release all preparatory documents and proposals; second, that it open the process to civil society; and third that it ask member states to solicit input from all interested groups at national level. In June, two academics at George Mason University in Virginia — Jerry Brito and Eli Dourado — set up the WCITLeaks site, soliciting copies of the WCIT documents and posting those they received. There were still gaps in late November when .nxt, a consultancy firm and ITU member, broke ranks and posted the lot on its own site.
The issue entered the mainstream when Greenpeace and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) launched the Stop the Net Grab campaign, demanding that the WCIT be opened up to outsiders. At the launch of the campaign on 12 November, Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the ITUC, pledged to fight for as long it took to ensure an open debate on whether regulation was necessary. “We will stay the distance,” she said.
This marks the first time that such large, experienced, international campaigners, whose primary work has nothing to do with the internet, have sought to protect its freedoms. This shows how fundamental a technology the internet has become.
A week later, the European parliament passed a resolution stating that the ITU was “not the appropriate body to assert regulatory authority over either internet governance or internet traffic flows”, opposing any efforts to extend the ITU’s scope and insisting that its human rights principles took precedence. The US has always argued against regulation.
Efforts by ITU secretary general Hamadoun Touré to spread calm have largely failed. In October, he argued that extending the internet to the two-thirds of the world currently without access required the UN’s leadership. Elsewhere, he has repeatedly claimed that the more radical proposals on the table in Dubai would not be passed because they would require consensus.
These proposals raise two key fears for digital rights campaigners.
The first concerns censorship and surveillance: some nations, such as Russia, favour regulation as a way to control or monitor content transiting their networks.
The second is financial. Traditional international calls attract settlement fees, which are paid by the operator in the originating country to the operator in the terminating country for completing the call. On the internet, everyone simply pays for their part of the network, and ISPs do not charge to carry each other’s traffic. These arrangements underpin network neutrality, the principle that all packets are delivered equally on a “best efforts” basis. Regulation to bring in settlement costs would end today’s free-for-all, in which anyone may set up a site without permission. Small wonder that Google is one of the most vocal anti-WCIT campaigners.
How worried should we be?
Well, the ITU cannot enforce its decisions, but, as was pointed out at the Stop the Net Grab launch, the system is so thoroughly interconnected that there is plenty of scope for damage if a few countries decide to adopt any new regulatory measures.
This is why so many people want to be represented in a dull, lengthy process run by an organisation that may be outdated to revise regulations that can be safely ignored. If you’re not in the room you can’t stop the bad stuff.