Internet humbles UN telecoms agency

ITU forced to face modern realities as WCIT conference implodes

Having turned industries and governments upside down, the Internet has claimed its first organizational scalp, subjecting the United Nations' International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to a humiliating failure at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai earlier today.

No sooner had applause run out after a vote on what to include in the preamble to an updated global telecoms treaty than the United States took the floor and announced it would not sign it.

"It's with a heavy heart and a sense of missed opportunities that the U.S. must communicate that it's not able to sign the agreement in the current form," said Ambassador Terry Kramer. "The Internet has given the world unimaginable economic and social benefit during these past 24 years. All without UN regulation. We candidly cannot support an ITU Treaty that is inconsistent with the multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance."

The US was then followed by the UK, Sweden, Egypt, Canada, Poland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Kenya, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Qatar, and the Czech Republic, all of whom expressed regret that the conference had not been able to effectively tackle the issues in front of it and warned they would not be able to sign the final text.

Living in the past

The collapse will come as a severe embarrassment to the ITU. Efforts to bring its core telecom regulations into the Internet era had exposed the organization to modern realities that it was incapable of dealing with. In the end, they proved overwhelming.

The warning signs were apparent months before the conference took place. The technical community and civil society had complained bitterly that they were not even allowed access to the documents that outlined government suggestions for change. It was confirmed that only government representatives would be able to provide proposals, speak and vote. Preparatory meetings were closed.

Under increasing pressure, the ITU at first dismissed the complaints before belatedly trying to open up. But it was too little too late. If the preparatory work was out-of-step with modern policy systems, attendees to the meeting were stunned to find a conference style and approach stuck in the 1970s.

A constant stream of information was available only in downloadable Word documents; disagreement was dealt with by increasingly small, closed groups of key government officials; voting was carried out by delegates physically raising large yellow paddles, and counted by staff who walked around the room; meetings ran until the early hours of the morning, and "consensus by exhaustion" was the only fall-back position. Government speakers spent long hours debating single words and playing strategic games with one another, pushing everyone closer and closer to the end of the conference without tackling any of the main points of contention.

The crying game

This approach stunned attendees who were forced to sit for hours in huge meeting halls, listening to events unfold at a frustratingly slow pace through their headsets while unable to interject. Then there were the actual proposals.

Russia first submitted, then revised, then pulled, then resubmitted an explosive contribution that effectively undermined the existing global structures that make the Internet work. The ITU's Secretary General foolishly insisted on including text on the unrelated matter of human rights in an effort to see off media criticism that some of the other proposals would allow governments to monitor people online. Old telco companies tried to rewire the Internet so they received millions of dollars in revenue from Internet companies such as Google and Facebook.

Mistake piled on mistake and yet the ITU seemed incapable of responding, relying on member states to arrive at their own solutions and ignoring civil society, the technical community and even hundreds of thousands of concerned global citizens that took to online petitions to express their disgust at decisions being made over the Internet in closed, government groups.

In the end, the ITU and the conference chair, having backed themselves to the edge of a cliff, dared governments to push them off. They duly did. And without even peeking over, the crowd turned around and walked away.