What did the WCIT really do? A Review

The New International Telecommunication Regulations and the Internet: A Commentary and Legislative History, by Richard Hill

Reviewed by Milton Mueller

This recent book starts out with the question:

Did the United Nations (UN) attempt to take over the Internet in December 2012 so as to control it and establish censorship?

Anyone who witnessed the anger, polarization, mistrust and (sometimes) hysteria surrounding the December 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) will understand the relevance of that question. Anyone who wants to have an informed opinion about WCIT and its implications should read this book – although they should do so skeptically.

The 2012 WCIT represented one of the most dramatic clashes between the old world of “telecommunications” and the new world of “the Internet.” It was another manifestation of the long-running institutional rivalry between the Internet technical community (represented by the IETF, the Regional Internet Registries, ICANN and companies like Google) and the UN-based International Telecommunication Union (ITU), with its political and economic support based on communications ministries, state telephone monopolies and incumbent providers in less-developed and emerging economies. The Internet community charged that the ITU was out to take over the internet, and that certain provisions of the revised ITRs would eliminate net neutrality, usher in global content regulation and surveillance, and lead to an ITU takeover of responsibility for all cybersecurity. The ITU itself claimed that it was just trying to update an outdated treaty, that there was a need for new rules regarding mobile roaming, and that nothing would happen without consensus. In the end, 55 nations refused to sign the treaty; another 89 did sign it.The world split. What was really at stake?

Richard Hill, formerly a senior ITU staff member, wants to set the record straight. He has written a detailed defense of the reasonableness of the revised ITRs, and considers the attacks on the new treaty as part of an orchestrated campaign by a few major internet companies such as Google. His account also provides important clues, usually indirect ones, about the roots of the current battle in older battles over the liberalization and privatization of telecommunications in the 1980s and 1990s.

The book provides a valuable and relatively objective introduction to the ITU and the ITRs. It describes the process by which the ITU member states reached an agreement to revise the 1988 ITRs; the negotiations over the ITRs in Dubai in December 2012; and the outcome of the negotiations. This historical background material is not easily found elsewhere, and thus the book is of great value. It then goes through each article of the new treaty showing exactly what was changed and providing an interpretation of the meaning of those changes. A concluding chapter discusses briefly what kind of actual changes in state actions the new ITRs would require. These chapters should be prescribed as medicine for those who hyperventilated about the WCIT during the time it was being debated.

When Hill is factually describing the historical background of the situation and the actual content and legal significance of the ITRs, he is at his best. When he tries to frame these larger issues as part of a struggle in which the big, bad Western companies who dominate the Internet are exploiting or imposing “communications imperialism” on poor, exploited developing countries, he is much less plausible.

Although the author routinely attempts to pay his respects to “both sides,” the book cannot conceal the author’s latent bias in favor of intergovernmental regulation over liberalized markets and Internet-era multistakeholder governance. It is also highly critical of the U.S., the Internet technical community and the Internet businesses it has spawned, often offering sideways, implicit apologias for the pre-liberalization telecommunications order in which state-owned monopolies exploited their role as traffic gatekeepers to charge inordinately high prices while utterly failing to develop the infrastructure.

Nevertheless, the book has important value. The author is clearly very experienced and knowledgeable about the ITU and his main purpose is to counter what he considers to be unjustified attacks on the ITU as an institution and on the new ITR treaty. This is a point of view that has not been aired as frequently or as loudly as the opposite one, and deserves to be heard. The greatest value of the work lies in its systematic approach to describing the process and the modifications of the text that took place. This legalistic approach succeeds in refuting or moderating many of the criticisms (or outright scare talk) that were made by Internet partisans during the process. On the whole it provides a more accurate view of what the new ITRs actually are and would actually do than most people have seen. But for better or worse, the tone of rancor that characterized the WCIT is still reflected in parts of this book.

That rancor is not primarily about the Internet or Internet governance per se; it has its roots in the still-revolutionary change in the role of the state that communications competition and liberalization introduced in the 1980s and ’90s. Hill tips his hand right at the beginning of the book: he dedicates it to his “friend and inspiring colleague” Nabil Kisrawi. For those who have not spent time watching the ITU, Kisrawi was the Syrian delegate to the ITU, someone who never accepted any premise, or any manifestation of competition, privatization or liberalization in communications. For decades, whenever it was possible and sometimes when it was not even relevant, he launched,  long speeches expressing his opposition to any and every element of the new liberal order in communications. One wonders whether Hill knew what he was doing when he wrote this dedication. But the ultimate irony is that many of today’s “cybersecurity” and “cyber-war” advocates in the developed countries, especially the U.S., would lead us right back into the territory that Nabil Kisrawi knew and loved. But that is a subject for another story.

2 comments

  1. Pingback: The Center for Global Communication Studies (CGCS) | Reaching Across Borders to Support Communications Scholarship