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.


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