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The dirty truth about WCIT
by Kieren McCarthy | 4 Dec 2012 |
It’s not what you think
It must have come as quite a shock to the world to learn at the last minute that this week the United Nations is going to take over the Internet.
A wave of articles, op-ed pieces and interviews in the past few days have grown increasingly concerned about what will result from the WCIT conference in Dubai.
Just a few days ago, the Syrian government cut its country off from the Internet. Was this the future we are now all facing? Governments deciding what and when we can go online? Faceless bureaucrats monitoring everything we do?
As the claims grew hysterical - and the ITU became increasingly defensive and frustrated in response - the Internet itself started providing the world with the answers. Subject experts took to their keyboards and began to debunk the claims on both sides.
At the end of it, what does WCIT boil down to? An effort by old telecoms operators to make more money. An effort that, by the way, is likely to fail.
But among the back-and-forth, a dirty truth exists: the campaign waged by the United States to bring WCIT, the ITRs and the ITU into the open has worked.
Those worrying proposals
.Nxt has published every proposed change to the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs). And in going through them - more than 1,000 individual items - we have learnt a stark truth: that governments have withdrawn many of the proposals that caused most concern.
The Russians - who have been pushing the most controversial changes - have walked back several times and withdrawn proposed changes. The most extraordinary document - Russia's number 27 contribution - which suggested point-blank that the United Nations take over key elements of the domain name system was revised and the wording withdrawn within days of being published.
It seems all too probable that the Russians made the proposals just to spite those that were accusing them of having made similar proposals anyway. Additionally, some of the most worrying cybercrime and monitoring proposals don't see to have turned up to the actual conference itself - something that you could argue is precisely the point of having pre-conference meetings.
The truth is that the ITU has been telling the truth in recent weeks: there are no proposals pushing what people have been getting most angry about; nothing will go through unless there is consensus; the organization does not wish to run the Internet. No, really, it doesn't.
The dirty truth is that the very sunlight that the US government and Google among others shone on the process has removed most of the big problems before WCIT even started. And despite persistent claims that the process is entirely secretive, the truth is that the ITU has acted - and lifted many of the restrictions.
All the meetings are being webcast live - a break from the norm. They have been opened to anyone that wishes to attend in person. They are also being transcribed. ITU staff has even started making (some) documents public, despite a decision by the ITU Council not to do so. A daily press conference is being held at 6pm each day. Despite a significant degree of defensiveness, the ITU is opening up.
But for how long?
Of course, some unpleasant facts remain: change had to be forced on the ITU, even though the organization has known this pressure has been coming for many years.
The other worrying aspect is that there is nothing to *stop* countries from making problematic proposals in future. There is a sense that rather than understand and appreciate the counter-arguments, nations like Russia, China an Saudi Arabia are just biding their time until they can push through their plans through unnoticed. The ITU has also given no indication that it is prepared to permanently change its approach - even though it must recognize such change is inevitable as it adapts to the modern world.
The fear that the same proposals will just keep reoccurring was felt at the conference preceding WCIT. At WTSA, the Arab States tried again to have the ITU become a regional Internet registry and distribute Internet IP addresses - despite the fact that the entire argument had already been run through the ITU's processes several years earlier and dismissed.
Does the broader Internet community have to remain ever vigilant? Does it need to make a huge fuss for every major international conference just to keep people honest? Is this a never-ending fight to stop some governments from trying to take over the Internet?
The answer, we would argue, is a qualified No. But those who claim to defend the open Internet need to become more honest and less reactive if they are to be trusted with a job that they insist they are entitled to.
The truth is that governments do have an important role to play with the Internet. What's more, there are some things that can only be done by governments and from which the Internet would benefit. On top of which, government representatives are usually much better negotiators and more respectful of opposing views than their counterparts in the technical community or civil society.
If Internet organizations expect the ITU - an institution that has been resolving complex global problems for more than 100 years - to recognize a new reality; then they must look in the mirror and do the same.
The dirty truth is that for all its out-of-date processes and government-only nature, the ITU towers over all the organizations that devise Internet policies in terms of professionalism, quality, process, and consideration of stakeholders' views.
Just last week the ICANN Board - a gathering of 21 individuals whose appointment is through a highly unsatisfactory, closed process - made several fundamental decisions over the domain name system and in so doing actively ignored or overruled its own community's deliberations.
It then bypassed one of the four independent reviews into the organization and how it carries out its job, as it attempted, but failed, to do for the last review. Instead, it decided in a single resolution, without any prior consultation, that it would give ICANN's new CEO carte blanche to take a whole new approach to the complex policy problem of Whois that the community has been working on for 10 years.
Likewise, the Internet Society, which purports to represents the views of Internet users worldwide, has developed and pushed the view of just a handful of senior staff over WCIT without any real consultation even within its own chapters.
The Internet Governance Forum - which has found praise in recent days at WCIT and promoted as a venue where Internet governance issues can be discussed - has become an under-resourced and unfocused annual get-together, without a leader and with an advisory committee that remains unwilling or unable to fix widely noted failings.
The truth is that if the ITU performed as poorly as the Internet organizations that have spent months criticizing it, there would be uproar. Alternatively, if Internet organizations were able to apply the same standards of work that the ITU manages, there would likely be no concern over a WCIT conference at all - because the issues would already have been dealt with.
If there is one thing that can be learnt from all the teeth gnashing and hyperbole of the past few weeks it is that both sides can learn from each other. The ITU has been given a snap lesson in policymaking in the Internet era. Now the Internet organizations need to realize they can learn a lot from how the ITU has handled it.