The relevance of the International Telecommunication Union’s World Conference of International Telecommunications (WCIT) to Internet governance is a hotly debated topic. There is an organized campaign to raise concern about it, with the latest entry being the scheduling of a hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives.

What this means is that 20 years after the opening of the Internet to the public, 13 years after the creation of ICANN, 7 years after the conclusion of WSIS, we are still having an intense debate about the relationship between nation-states and the governance of the Internet. This is precisely the topic I tried to treat comprehensively in my recent book, Networks and States. It might sound self-serving, but I think that a lot of participants in the current debate would benefit from the historical perspective and theoretically grounded analysis it provides.

There is no doubt that some governments, notably Russia, would like to see the ITU replace ICANN and other private sector-based Internet institutions. What most people don’t realize, however, is that certain governments have advocated that position for more than a decade – and they have repeatedly failed to realize those goals.

The history is worth recounting. Start the story in 1996, when the ITU attempted to take over the domain name system. At that time it was (extreme irony) allied with the Internet Society in an attempt to privatize management of the DNS root and remove it from the hands of the US government. The U.S. squashed that effort like a bug, leading to the creation of ICANN.

The next episode, and the high water mark of the nation-state challenge to Internet governance, was the 2002 – 2005 World Summit on the Information Society. At WSIS, governments started to grok ICANN and wake up to the lack of intergovernmental institutions with authority over the Internet. There was a huge expansion of the coalition in favor of a greater role for governments. The European Commission, led by the French, joined Brazil, Arab states, Iran, South Africa, numerous other African states, China and Russia in criticism of US control of the root and in favor of state-directed “globally applicable public policy principles.” But they failed to alter ICANN’s basic governance model, or the basic approach to Internet governance. WSIS did have an indirect effect of strengthening the role of governments inside ICANN, but that was mainly because the U.S., in its determination to stop the .xxx domain, aggressively used ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) to intervene in policy making.

In 2009-2010, the ITU tried to gain a larger role for itself in the management of IP addresses. Many of the same fears now expressed about the WCIT-12 were expressed about the ITU Plenipotentiary meeting in Guadalajara in 2010.   And yet, as our coverage of the results of that meeting indicated,  the resolutions emerging from the Plenipot not only did not “take over” anything, they made a concession, mentioning ICANN by name for the first time ever in an ITU resolution (albeit grudgingly, in a footnote). Proposals by countries such as Russia to transform ICANN’s GAC into an intergovernmental organization with oversight powers, or to create a “progressive cooperation agreement between ITU and ICANN and define a mechanism to increase the participation of governments” were all struck from the text, another defeat for creeping intergovernmentalism.

Most recently, in 2011 there was a proposal by India, Brazil and South Africa to create a UN “Committee on Internet Related Policies” (CIRP). Although this raised alarms about a “UN take over” the proposal actually involved the creation of a research and policy development committee that could make proposals to be considered by the UN General Assembly. CIRP had some weak non-governmental stakeholder representational structures, but no legislative or regulatory powers, only the ability to formulate proposals that governments would then have to negotiate and ratify as treaties. Not a good idea, in my opinion, but if major Internet-economy countries such as the US and in Europe refused to ratify those treaties, they could not have any effect. Yet even that proposal has been stoutly resisted. Brazil later disavowed the proposal. India is still backing it, contrary to some reports, but the Indian government’s support for it has been openly criticized by legislators and South-based civil society groups, who link it to India’s domestic Internet censorship efforts.

The CIRP proposal itself was a reflection of many governments’ dissatisfaction with the Internet Governance Forum, especially emerging economies in what is called “the global South.” IGF was the main outcome of the WSIS and was supposed to continue the unresolved debate over US control of critical Internet resources in an open, fully multistakeholder forum. But many of these critics of the Internet governance status quo became disenchanted with the IGF. Some governments wavered in their commitment to equal-status cooperation with other stakeholder groups. Some civil society critics claimed, not unreasonably, that players with a vested interest in the status quo were preventing the IGF from taking on controversial issues and from making recommendations. Business interests in the West contributed to this dissatisfaction by filling the IGF with meaningless happy talk about disaster relief and green IT, neither of which have anything to do with global Internet governance. This led to UN-based efforts to institute IGF “improvements.” Of course, those “improvements,” which tended to involve more bureaucratization of IGF, have been opposed and blocked by advocates of the weaker IGF.

So here’s the bottom line:

1. There is no sudden UN or ITU effort to take over the Internet. There is, instead, a longstanding struggle between the Net and states at the national and international level. The WCIT is just the latest episode; and compared to WSIS, a minor one.

2. There is no evidence of any recent enlargement of the political support for states and inter-governmental institutions such as ITU. The same players are taking the same positions. There may even be erosion of support for inter-governmentalism, e.g. Brazil’s abandonment of CIRP.

3. The ITU is a paper tiger. Neither WSIS nor any other international development has strengthened or approved ITU efforts to gain control of pieces of the Internet since 1996.

4. Intergovernmentalism is a fading ideology. While developing countries and BRICs still resent US economic and political pre-eminance and tend to view intergovernmental institutions as a way to address those resentments, they have been persistently unsuccessful in re-asserting governmental control over the Internet in transnational institutions. Civil society and business within those countries are divided – they do not always support their governments’ efforts. Most Internet-related activists are on the side of de-nationalized, multistakeholder governance.

5. The biggest threats are at the national level. States (including not just India, China and Russia but the US, Great Britain, and other Western democracies) have taken major steps to impose new regulations and controls on the Internet insofar as they can within their territorial jurisdiction. If the world’s governments lock down the Internet nationally and then agree on how to control it globally, it would indeed be dangerous. But we are a long way away from such agreement.

So a more realistic assessment of the threats and their context is required before people run around sounding the alarms about the ITU, and its International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs). In my next blog, I will look into more depth into the ITRs – and the real cause for concern about what they might do.

17 thoughts on “Threat Analysis of ITU’s WCIT (Part 1): Historical context

  1. We are a long way away from such agreement.
    I am really afraid :look what happen with Iraque and Lybia:with lies so rapidily they take oil control even with hundreds of thousands deads the job is done and nobody was judged.

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