WCIT and the Internet? It all comes down to this document

The lowdown on Russia's contribution 27

Russian minister Nikolai Nikiforov will be a key influence in the conference outcomes.

Probably the only reason you're reading this post is because of fears that the United Nations will use the WCIT conference to gain power over the Internet.

The focal point for those fears has become a contribution by the Russian Federation, sent on 13 November - 10 days after the announced deadline - and then revised four days later.

Contribution 27 appears to confirm everything that people have been worrying about - an effort to use a revision of an international treaty agreed in 1988 to provide governments with additional controls over the functioning of the Internet.

So here is a rundown of what is exactly in Contribution 27 - both the original and revised versions - and an analysis of what the implications of its adoption would be.

We will also try to predict what will happen to the contribution through the conference and what that real-world impact of it may be.

The headache arrives

It is safe to assume that when the ITU staff received and read the Russian contribution to WCIT on 13 November they let out a collective moan.

The ITU's Secretary-General Hamadoun Toure had gone on record numerous times in the previous month stating that, contrary to claims, there were no actual proposals for the ITU to become involved with the Internet or Internet governance.

Toure has in fact been delivering the same message for several years but it has never been really believed by Internet organizations and governments. The reasons why are complex but broadly:

  • There is a long history of mistrust between the ITU and Internet organizations, particularly ICANN.
  • No one can imagine that the ITU doesn't secretly want to be in charge of the Internet and Internet standards
  • Some governments keep making efforts to pull control away from US-focused Internet organizations and complain about the US government's oversight role of key parts of the Internet's infrastructure.

Unfortunately, contribution 27 blew a huge hole in Toure's claims that WCIT would not consider Internet governance. Following a long preamble about the network's importance, the text proposed an entirely new article called "IP-based networks (Internet)".

In that proposed new article, Russia argued that member states should have the "sovereign right" to "regulate the activities of operating agencies providing Internet access services within their national territory".

Not only that, by they should also have the "sovereign right" to manage the Internet and domain names within their borders, "ensure" that operating agencies "cooperate" with governments in developing the Internet within their borders, and also "cooperate" in "maintaining the security, integrity and reliable operation" of the Internet.

Lastly, member states should have "equal rights" in the "international allocation of Internet addressing".

What this means

Even for those not accustomed to reading the true meaning of diplomatic language, these statements stand out as troublesome.

No government is ever going to send text to the United Nations that calls for "online monitoring and persecution of political opponents", "state-sponsored surveillance of Internet users" or "powers to force Internet companies to hand over private information without a warrant" - but this in essence is what the original Russian proposal asked for.

It should also be noted that this text does matter. Even though countries are not obliged to follow the ITRs, and even though they already have the right to monitor telecommunications within their national boundaries (and most do, including the free-speech-loving United States), nonetheless having such text in an international treaty provides any government department with a dangerous degree of justification to carry out online surveillance as well as apply behind-the-scenes pressure on companies operating in their countries.

Such text would effectively allow every government department to do in the open what the security services currently do in secret. Unsurprisingly this idea horrifies a significant number of people across the globe.

As to the reference to equal rights in the allocation of Internet addressing, this is a shot at the current Internet infrastructure arrangements that see the US government and two key companies - both based in the US and under strong US government influence, ICANN and Verisign - manage the top-level of the Internet.

This situation has long been a source of frustration in much of the world but so far no alternatives have been sufficiently persuasive to those organizations that they are willing to change or rescind their respective roles. And there is nothing beyond persuasion that can make them do so.

The revised version

It now emerges that the original Russian contribution came directly from the President's office. A Russian news article revealed that fact, as well as the fact that the revised version - sent on a Saturday four days after the first - was written by the Ministry of Communications. Since the Russian Federation will be represented by its Minister of Communication, the revised version is what will stand.

Interestingly, the minister in question, Nikolai Nikiforov is not your usual Russian bureaucrat. He is 29 years old and from a younger generation that understands rather than fears the Internet. He is reportedly a fan of modern technology and start-up culture personified by Silicon Valley. But most notably, he has already stood up to the entrenched telecoms powers in Russia. Just over a month ago, he publicly criticized Rostelcom (Russia's biggest telco) for failing to spread Internet access more broadly and outlined plans to get faster Net access to more citizens at a quicker pace.

That bold move may well be what was behind the production of the original contribution 27 - written by telecoms operators and pushed to the ITU by working power levers in the background. The revised version came once Nikiforov's team a the communications ministry had reviewed it.

That is however no more than educated guesswork, and we first thought the original contribution was so extreme that it was mere pot-stirring on the part of the Russian Federation ahead of the conference.

If this is what happened, it is not the only example of different arms of governments being at odds with one another over Internet policy, with the political veterans taking a very nationalistic view and a younger generation understanding the value of a global network. A number of countries appear to possess this schizophrenic attitude with India perhaps being the prime example in recent years; first suggesting an entirely new Internet governance body at the UN General Assembly and just months later publicly embracing ICANN and the multi-stakeholder model.

So what are the changes in the original and revised versions?

This is the most crucial aspect - what has changed and what does it say about Russia's motives? Here are the key changes:

  • The long preamble in the original contribution - which included references to legal standpoints, Internet infrastructure, the importance of the Internet to countries including in political participation and regulation - has been pulled out. Instead, a reference to the Internet as a "new global telecommunication infrastructure" appears. It does however note that it considers "Internet numbering, naming, addressing and identification resources" as "an international resource".
  • The suggestions for new definitions of "Internet", "Internet traffic", "Basic Internet infrastructure" and "National Internet segment" are all retained and an additional "Internet access" appears.
  • The text arguing for the right to regulate agencies within national borders is changed significantly. There is no mention of regulation and the new text mentions the private sector and civil society as being part of the development of "norms, rules, decision-making procedures and programmes that shape the evolution and use of the Internet". The same text would not be out of place in a document from the any Western government.
  • The text arguing for the right to manage the Internet and domain names within a country's borders is thrown out but the request for equal rights in Internet addressing is retained. This will enrage the Internet community which does not want to see any Internet governance wording in the ITRs at all.
  • The authoritarian claim that operating agencies will be required to "cooperate" with governments is replaced with a less worrying but still highly significant request that countries be given "the sovereign right to establish and implement public policy, including international policy, on matters of Internet governance". And that covers both telcos and Internet companies. This is the one stand-out piece of text that pulls WCIT and the ITU directly into Internet governance.
  • An additional clause arguing that countries should "endeavour to establish policies aimed at meeting public requirements with respect to Internet access" and referring to "international cooperation… in supporting the operation and development of the Internet" is a largely positive statement, albeit one that some countries and Internet organizations would rather not see at all.
  • And finally, the cooperation requirement in the name of Internet security - a clear opening for security services - is mostly retained except with the word "maintaining" replaced with "ensure". This is not a significant change given the broader context and will concern many.

So what overall does the revision show? That, the tone has been significantly softened but two key proposed changes threaten to pull Internet governance into the ITRs and, if adopted, open the door to higher levels of interference in citizens' online lives.

Those changes - RUS/27/9 and RUS/27/11 - are likely to be hotly contested over the next 10 days.

The bigger picture

Of course, just because something is proposed does not mean that it is going to be adopted. In fact the vast majority of the 1,200 or so proposals will be withdrawn, combined or dropped before the conference ends on 14 December.

There are however two questions over this Russian contribution:

  1. Will the conference approve creation of an entirely new article labeled "Internet"? and
  2. If it does, will the two problematic clauses be dropped or will they be redrafted to meet broader consensus?

It is hard to impossible to know at this stage how things will proceed. There will be a lot of support from some countries to get a reference to the Internet into the ITRs. That push will be met very forcefully by the United States, among others.

But it is all too likely that some kind of article about the Internet will make it in and argument will then move to what it contains.

There is no likelihood that the two problematic clauses will make it through the WCIT process untouched. And Russia has already signaled that it is willing to include references to the private sector and civil society. So the compromise may come in including them alongside a reference to existing Internet organizations - something that would also reflect the painful compromise reached at the ITU's Plenipotentiary conference in 2010.

But won't the US threaten to walk out?

Such a result would have many gnashing their teeth, but the advantages to being named in the ITRs could well outweigh the fear that exists in the Internet being mentioned at all. Either way, the United States can be expected to complain vociferously.

There is a reason however that Terry Kramer has been chosen to lead the US delegation - the US redline is over changing the charging system for the Internet - something that would have real and damaging economic consequences to US companies. Kramer is a telecoms insider and so is in a position to pick apart any efforts to impose an old charging mechanism on a new network.

When it comes to referring to the Internet though, the United States will have to make a judgment call on how far it can allow it to go. It may settle for additional references to the existing Internet status quo of ICANN, the IETF, W3C, ISOC and the RIRs. That call will ultimately fall to Dick Beaird, the US State Department's unrivalled chief negotiator.

However it is also possible that the young Russian minister Nikiforov could make a name for himself on the international stage. It is an opportunity he would be foolish to miss given that the conference is becoming increasingly focused on his country's contribution.