The future of the web will be decided in a room by UN politicians and authoritarian governments. Leaked documents have shown that International Telecom Union members are interested in adding more internet regulations to the ITU’s mostly telecommunications-focused rules, something critics worry will let countries justify repressive filtering of the internet or upset the current balance of power by pushing more regulation.
Starting December 3rd, these concerns will come to a head, as ITU members meet in Dubai to discuss proposals and hammer out a treaty. The debate over the new regulations has been going on for years, and it will likely continue well beyond this meeting. As the meeting gets underway, we’re likely to see a lot of Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt — some of which may be justified. International Telecommunication Union is a UN agency that predates both the UN and the telephone. It currently reports a membership of 193 countries and around 700 companies and research institutions, who develop treaties that set technical standards and goals for developing communications networks worldwide.
As an intergovernmental body, it raises the hackles of the often strongly libertarian tech industry, which worries about top-down regulation by politicians. And as part of the UN, it’s a target for Americans who harbor a long-running distrust of international policy-making. The center of the debate is WCIT, the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai. From December 3rd to the 14th, the ITU will update its 1988 International Telecommunication Regulations, which outline how national and international networks should operate at a broad level. That means that for all the talk of backroom deals that will let the UN take over the internet, the ITRs only have teeth if almost everyone involved decides they should.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the ITU or the UN is trying to keep the dealings secret, but it does point to a disconnect between how its system usually works and what’s expected of internet policy makers. WCIT is a proposed shift from treating the ITU as a primarily telecom-oriented agency to one that specifically deals with the internet.
“”Only governments have a voice at the ITU.””
Despite this, companies don’t like the idea of following another set of rules, and public interest groups worry that the ITU won’t be responsive. Taxing the internet, locking down the web? The answer is yes.