Observations on WCIT-12

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The World Conference on Information Technology (WCIT-12) has ended and I’ve had a few days to mentally digest what I witnessed as a member of the Canadian delegation.

WCIT-12 was a meeting of member nations of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to discuss the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs), the agreements that regulate global telecommunications traffic. A number of proposals were put forward at WCIT-12 that would extend the reach of the ITRs over the Internet.

As you are likely aware, there was much disagreement over these proposals, with the pro- and anti-ITU sides so polarized it resembled an online Cold War.

By the end of the negotiations, a draft treaty was put to a vote and passed with two-thirds support. The final agreement includes a number of provisions that left many nations unable to sign it, including provisions related to spam (‘unsolicited bulk electronic communications’ in bureaucratic speak) and a definition of ‘operating agency’, i.e. the organizations covered by the treaty, that may be interpreted as including Internet service providers and content producers.

What does this mean?

In the end, consensus wasn’t reached, but there was agreement among a group of countries – 89 countries signed the updated ITRs. Once you dig a little deeper, an interesting story starts to emerge.

I compared the list of countries who signed the ITRs with the Democracy Index, a ranking of nations based on a number of categories to measure their democratic state.

There is a clear correlation between a country’s ranking on the democratic index and the likelihood they supported the revised ITRs:

Ninety-one per cent of countries that are identified as ‘full democracy’ and voted at WCIT-12 did NOT support the ITRs. This number steadily declines as a country’s democratic ranking declines, to the point where only 8.6 per cent of ‘authoritarian regimes’ did not support them. The flip side of this story is worth stating: the more democratic a nation is, the least likely it is to support the ITU extending its reach over the Internet.

What does this mean for the Internet?

What we are potentially looking at now, in my opinion, may be the development of a two-tiered Internet. Those countries that supported the new ITRs and that go on to ratify the agreement will have, at least in their opinion, the support of an international treaty to limit and monitor, if not censor, Internet traffic transiting across its borders.

Part of the world’s population, primarily those that live in the First World, will continue to have access to the free and open Internet and all of its benefits. The rest of the world, primarily those that live in the developing world, will have access to some lesser version of the Internet.

You can bet that some of the larger content producers are simply just not going to bother offering content or services to much of the world.  This could very well mean that a content producer in Canada will be subject to the ITRs if it is available in those countries. And, as I explained in my last post, Internet traffic doesn’t travel point-to-point. It is broken into many different packets of information which individually take the most efficient route possible. What if that route transits through a country that has signed on to the new ITRs?

Think about that against the backdrop of the above info-graphic. It is primarily countries in the developing world that supported the new ITRs. This means that it will be the developing world that will not have access to the same information free and open democracies, like Canada, do.

In Dubai, we may have witnessed history, but not of the good kind. I believe it is one where the free and open Internet – the Internet that has allowed free speech, democracy and economic development to flourish – will only be available to the citizens of the developed world. The citizens of the developing world – the people who could most benefit from the free and open Internet, from the free flow of information, and from access to global markets for their products and services – will be deprived of these benefits.

Leading up to the conference, there was much hyperbole (the Internet control doomsayers) and placating (i.e. “the ITU isn’t interested in the Internet”).  Unfortunately, the possible creation of a two-tier Internet means that WCIT-12 lived up to the hyperbole more than it allayed the fears of many of the delegates.

In the end, however, only time will tell.


The ITU’s World Conference on International Telecommunications

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I’m about to leave for Dubai as part of the Canadian delegation to the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12).

You’ve undoubtedly heard of this meeting – it has been receiving an incredible amount of attention in the mainstream media and online. There has been a phenomenal amount of activity on Twitter about WCIT-12, and it has been the topic of many conversations in the Internet governance world, both at the table and in the hallway, for the past six months.

In fact, my last blog post was about a campaign I am endorsing called ‘Stop the Net Grab’.  This initiative opposes certain proposals to the WCIT-12 that would see the ITU regulate the Internet’s quality of service, billing settlement and security.

‘Stop the Net Grab’ isn’t the only campaign to oppose any proposals that would see the ITU have increased influence or control over the Internet. As I write this, nearly 40,000 individuals from over 180 countries, as well as more than 1,500 organizations, had signed the Statement to Protect Global Internet Freedom. This grassroots effort is founded on the principle that “Internet governance decisions should be made in a transparent manner with genuine multistakeholder participation from civil society, governments, and the private sector.”

It’s the first meeting in 25 years to revisit the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs), the regulations that govern and standardize telecommunications activities globally and there are many people and organizations who are opposed to having any part of the Internet put under the control of the ITU. Their reasons are many and varied. I tend to fall in this category as well, and I’d like to take this opportunity to explain why.

The ITRs will be opened and explored with an eye to updating them. Let’s be frank, this is fundamentally a good thing. It’s time some standards and regulations were established around mobile, especially in terms of roaming, for example. The ITU does some very good and important work.

The fact is, however, there are some member states who would like to take this opportunity to further their own agendas. The ITU’s membership is comprised of nation states, many of whom are representatives from nationalized telecommunications organizations.

It’s what some of those representatives want that concerns me the most. Some of them would like to profit from the growing Internet traffic (which, by the way, is growing at the expense of traditional telephone traffic).

Certainly understandable.

However, the impact of putting a traditional telecom model on the Internet is incredibly problematic. To profit from Internet traffic would mean putting in place a mechanism to measure traffic. This is reasonably easy in the telecom world. Telephone calls are point to point – one person calls another, there’s a toll booth in the middle, and the caller gets billed. It’s called the sender pays model, and has been very successful in the telephony world.

The Internet doesn’t work that way. When you send an email or access a website, you are not making a point to point connection. Information sent over the Internet is broken into many individual packets of information, and it could take just as many paths to reach its destination.

We have developed this info-graphic to help explain how these two models for information traffic compare:


I have another reason for opposing some kind of sender pays model on the Internet. Some of these telecom guys have a much more nefarious reason for wanting to put some level of control over Internet traffic. Think about the number of countries which do not have a strong commitment to human rights and democracy, and you can get a pretty good idea of how much of the global Internet traffic could come under significant surveillance.

Once you put in place a mechanism that measure traffic, it’s pretty easy to adapt it to monitor traffic as well. All of a sudden, the Internet as a democratizing force no longer exists.

Truth is, the ITU is not a bad organization. And, much of the work it does is for the betterment of our global society. However, it is only as good as its members, and if enough of them decide to implement a particular course of action, the rest of us are unable to do anything about it.

Here’s the facts: the ITU has to come out with something at the end of this meeting. It is inconceivable that an organization as venerable as the ITU could bring together thousands of delegates from nearly 200 countries for the first time in 25 years, and not have a tangible outcome. I’m sure that in the UN community, that would be rather embarrassing. So, we can definitely expect something; let’s just hope it doesn’t jeopardize the global Internet.

Because this is a closed, treaty-based meeting – and the fact there is 9 hours difference between Ottawa and Dubai – I will be limited in my communications. This blog and likely my Twitter account will have limited activity, but I do encourage you to follow the conference online and via the Twitter hashtag #WCIT12. I will blog about the experience and the discussions when I return home.