I’ve just returned from two weeks at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai. This conference sought to renegotiate the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs) for the first time since 1988. In the run up to the conference, many were concerned that the International Telelcommunications Union (ITU) would seek to gain control over the Internet in spite of protests from the ITU’s Secretary General. He said it was not supposed to be about the Internet, but in the end it was. Just over half of the 194 members of the ITU have yet to sign the new treaty and many, including the UK, will never sign it. In light of all of this, I’d like to offer some thoughts on the process and the work over the last few weeks as I experienced it.
For two weeks the text of the old treaty was discussed with the addition of new proposals from all countries. We worked quite tirelessly in working groups, ad hoc groups and over lunch to discuss different sections relating to telecommunications management and services. As part of the UK delegation I was assigned the remit of looking at accounting and charging (Article 6) in the ITRs. This was a very controversial area not helped by proposals from ETNO who hoped to introduce a sender pays model for all content over the Internet, meaning that if a user clicks on a blog, search engine, or news website, the owner of that website would have to pay to deliver the content to the end user. Of course this fundamentally upsets the Internet ecosystem and, in the end, the provisions were not in the treaty in their original form. Many long nights were spent trying to agree on wording and text for this and other parts of Article 6 in the ITRs, but in the end only a general agreement could be met.
I’ll be writing a longer piece on the WCIT in the near future, but for the time being it is safe to say that everyone who attended the WCIT worked very hard in spite of proposals on spam, security and the Internet that were constantly being put forth – and being rejected by the UK. There have been reports that the US and allies may have never intended to sign the treaty in the first place, but from my experience this was not the case. The work that we all did meant long nights, multiple proposals to texts, many compromises and many more emails, discussions in passing and phone calls. The days lasted from 8am to around midnight especially in the last week. Suffice it to say I met a number of people who work in countries all around the world and discussed all of the issues with them.
And this is a key point: in talking to other delegations it became clear what they wanted out of the treaty. They wanted to insure that they had a place to address their issues that couldn’t be dealt with through national laws or regulations. For example, a smaller African country wanted to put specific text in the treaty about dispute resolution with international telecommunications companies working in their countries. When I asked them if contracts that they signed with countries contained dispute resolutions, they said yes, but that ‘it takes too long to resolve’. This issues has to do with national law and legislation and not something that should be addressed at in an international treaty. I now have a clearer idea about why of some of the most restrictive proposals came forth over the last year and it is this understanding that I will take away and discuss with companies and civil society groups who might be able to facilitate work in these areas going forward.
But at the end of the two weeks the UK along with 55 others decided not to sign. Our head of delegation, Simon Towler, said,
“My delegation came to work for revised ITRs. But not at any cost. We’re not able to sign a bad agreement that does nobody any favours and makes nobody happy. We all agreed that content was not intended to be part of the ITRs, but content issues keep coming up. We preferred no text on security but in the interest of compromise we worked towards language we could accept. Unfortunately, the language that we proposed and the various alternatives we proposed were constantly rejected and the compromise that we have before us we could only possibly accept in the context of a treaty that was acceptable in all other respects. On the Internet itself, our position is clear. We do not see the ITRs as the place to address Internet issues. The proper place is multistakeholder fora, the IGF, the ICANN GAC”
This was the treaty that wasn’t about the Internet, but it was, really, all about the Internet in the end. The non-vote, ‘vote’ on the inclusion of an Internet resolution in the middle of the last week that was forced through by the chair sent a clear signal that the Internet was very much on the cards. Even the Secretary General said on Friday that we can’t ignore the new dynamic of telecommunications, contradicting his opening speech statement that the ITRs were not about the Internet. In the end, UK decided that it could not come home having signed a treaty that placed even more regulation on the growing digital economy in Great Britain.
In the next few weeks as we all reflect on what it means not to be a part of a global treaty that regulates communications and the digital technology, we should not predict a two tier digital economy or a bifurcation of the Internet. We should, instead, note that the UK and others have stood up for what they believe in – that increased regulation limits the freedom of individuals and organizations that innovate and create. We need to be proud of this and continue to ensure we promote the benefits that a smaller state and freedom brings to others. I only hope that this approach can now be taken at home in the UK with other, potentially damaging schemes like the Comms Data Bill and Digital Economy Act.