The future of Internet Governance? It doesn't start here

on 21st December 2012

(Last updated 11th March 2016)

Getting the train to Brighton everyday means you chat to a lot of people working in the digital world, after all, Brighton is the digital hub of the UK - don’t you know!

Surprisingly, what the majority of my fellow digital workers didn’t know is that the future of the Internet has been in the balance for the past two weeks. No really, it has.

The World Conference on International Telecommunications hosted in Dubai, attended by representatives from all over the world, saw organisations and countries fiercely debating the future governance of the Internet.

The International Telecommunications Regulation has been the official governing document since the 1980s. The aim of the summit was to rewrite this woefully outdated multilateral treaty, which, should it have been passed with meaningful consensus, would have made significant change to how the Internet was governed and to the Internet itself.

In a nutshell

  • The primary goals of the new treaty were to help co-ordination between nations in the fight against spam and to widen their access to the web.
  • This goal soon became secondary to the questions raised over whether all countries should have equal rights to develop the Internets technical foundations.
  • The treaty also provided that the US Government should get to determine which body should regulate the Internet’s address system as a legacy for its funding of ARPANET (precursor to what we now know as the modern Internet).

So what happened?

The first point of pungency with attendees was this U.S. legacy.  Many attendees believe this legacy claim is irrelevant and shouldn’t be the should basis for the US retaining its right to decide which body should regulate the net’s address system. The U.S. argued that this structure allows its experts to make "agile, rapid-fire decisions" about the Internet's development, maintaining that any other system might be used for purposes of censorship, interference in the operation of ISPs, and the interruption of U.S.-run operations like Google and Face book. This view was supported by founders of APRANET warning any changes posed a disruptive threat to the stability of the system.

The railroading from the original aims continued largely due to the use of language in the document that seemed to relate to Internet Content and not just Governance. As this additional reference to Content was incorporated late into the treaty, it’s understood that the majority of those attending had not had time to review the term, adding further divergence from the conferences primary aims.

Contention continued with a point proposed by the African bloc of countries calling for an addition to the treaty preamble relating to human rights: ”These regulations recognize the right of access of member states to international telecommunication services." The U.S. countered this proposal arguing that the treaty was not about the rights of individuals but of their governments and their use/governance of the net.

- A vote was carried by 77 to 33 in favour of the proposal.

Breaking Point

The human rights proposal was the breaking point and in the most dramatic face off, the U.S the UK and Canada said they could no longer ratify the treaty and walked out of the conference. Simon Towler, the head of the UK delegation said: "My delegation came to work for revised international telecommunication regulations, but not at any cost. We prefer no resolution on the Internet at all, and I'm extremely concerned that the language just adopted opens the possibility of Internet and content issues”.

Terry Kramer, the U.S. ambassador said, "It's with a heavy heart and a sense of missed opportunities that the US must communicate that it's not able to sign the agreement in the current form".

Many other countries essentially half-refused to sign returning a ‘present’ vote, wanting to consult with their national governments’ before officially signing or not.

However, Russia, Iran and Qatar supported the treaty and along with the remaining members of the ITU (made up of 193 countries) signed it. When you consider how many of the ‘major players’ didn’t sign the treaty, it could be argued that the ratification of the document was hollow. ITU like the UN derives its power from consensus – which without such powerful members signing makes the treaty on the whole, meaningless.

In total 89 countries have now signed the treaty and 55 have either reserved the right to do so later or ruled out ratifying it altogether.

What about the Organisations that attended?

Not only countries, but organisations and representatives also stated the danger inherent in the treaty and its language. Vint Cerf and Time Berners Lee (founders of the Internet and WWW), along with Google came out strongly against the treaty and the process to overhaul it, stating, "A free and open world depends on a free and open Internet. Governments alone, working behind closed doors, should not direct its future."

So what was the result of all this?

The ITU’s secretary-general, Dr Hamadoun Toure tried to put a positive spin on this collapse of proceedings by saying "...that the conference has achieved something extremely important. It has succeeded in bringing unprecedented public attention to the different and important perspectives that govern global communications". Considering how many people I know and work with in the digital media didn't know about the conference or its results - I'd question his claim of an achievement. 

In a response to the concerns raised over the treaty’s application to Internet Content, the ITU introduced a highlighted section ensuring readers that it did not address content related communications. But this was too little, too late.

At the final press conference the ITU stated that it was “puzzled” by the reaction of some members to the human rights proposals. The fact that they were confused how the use of language and its precise interpretation could yield such a negative result is concerning. Its clear that the ITU is embarrassingly out of touch with the most technologically advanced sectors of society.  

Embarrassment aside, the conference yielded no tangible results that will affect users of the net as we know it. Arguably, the conference achieved nothing of note when you consider the lack of member consensus.

What we can take from this whole debacle is how far the world needs to go to reach consensus on Internet regulation. When you remember that regulation was not the conferences original aim and how easily divergence to the subject occurred, its clear regulation needs to be addressed first. All roads lead to this subject, attempting to circumvent it as this conference did - clearly doesn’t work.

This then begs a new question – how can the Internet be Governed in a fair way that ensures all members and indeed users enjoy equal rights? Closed door sessions are far from ideal and the reality of an open, free Internet.