Over in Geneva this week and in Dubai later this year, meetings will take place which could irreversibly end the free, self-organising nature of Internet governance and operation which has prevailed since the medium hit the big time in the mid 1990s.
The meetings are considering changes to the International Telecommunications Regulations, a set of treaty-style rules which govern the regulation of communications and form part of the framework under which the International Telecommunication Union operates.
An ITU Working Group is meeting in Geneva this week to consider member state recommendations for changes to the treaty ahead of a World Conference on International Communications scheduled for Dubai in December. Given the last major changes to the treaty took place in 1988, there is an instinct among many nations that the time has come for a massive re-boot of the rules, for no reason other than the fact that since so much has happened in communications since that date then changes are required. A leaked copy of the 212 pages of recommendations shows that many of the proposed changes are innocuous or non-controversial: for example, they expand definitions to recognise the convergence of technology or seek feel-good inclusive language along the lines of recognising the human rights of access to communications technologies.
But across the many recommendations there are several which seek to extend government control deep into the specifications, standards and procedures that govern how networks operate, interconnect and settle with each other. Most alarming are Russian and Arab states proposals which would grant member states the ability to specify through which networks communications are routed, prohibit alternative routing paths and prevent communications that threaten “national security” or even convey “sensitive” information. China is also proposing similar ideas. In summary, these powers could provide censorious governments with the means to effectively disrupt and control communications which challenge their legitimacy.
Of course, there is nothing to stop them from doing this now and, indeed, the old regulations provide the ability to do this to PSTNs. But given that the right to unfettered person-to-person internet communications has generally been recognised as a public good, as evidenced in recent democratic “springs” across the world, it is disturbing that an ITU treaty might entrench language which provides legal cover for state pushback against their citizens’ free communications.
INTERNET TAX: Another controversial under-the-radar recommendation comes from the European Telecommunications Network Operators (ETNO) group, which represents the interests of Europe’s legacy incumbent telcos at the EU. ETNO has cleverly appropriated the old language of international voice settlements to recommend that Internet interconnection be based on a “sender pays” principle with charging based on both the volume and value of the traffic. It says this is needed to provide fair compensation for their investment in infrastructure.
The practices of peering and the other barter-style mechanisms which govern Internet exchange have long bothered such telcos: they would love to levy fees on the likes of Google, Facebook and so on in return for providing access to their billions of end customers. And given the starvation of incentives for many telcos to upgrade to FTTN or FTTH architectures, perhaps there is a debate to be had about the merits or otherwise of such an idea. But ETNO’s method of attempting to sneak this in via an obscure treaty re-negotiation demonstrates a furtive agenda: we only know about it because its ITU submission was leaked to a US technology libertarian website.
Such a revision could effectively lead to Internet content tax or charges, with all manner of unknown and unintended consequences. This deserves the widest debate and, as with the routing proposal, is too important to be ratified in private via a closeted treaty process largely informed by the interests of state telecom administrations.
NOT AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM: One shouldn’t labour under the misapprehension that this bleak analysis is solely informed by the view through the prism of American exceptionalism. The push by the likes of Russia and China to assume “sovereign” control over the Internet is real. For example, China has recently forwarded a draft proposal to the Internet Engineering Task Force for an “autonomous Internet.” The language is arcane but the intention is clear: the draft calls for an “independent autonomous extensible domain name architecture and domain name hierarchy” and a “DNS resolution mechanism” that provides a “transition solution” for an autonomous Internet set up via “unilateral” action.
Indeed, it is clear that it would be a mischaracterisation to describe the current international telecom talks as an ITU takeover of the Internet. More, it is a case of certain member states which don’t like the Internet’s current freedom from government control and taxation to use a treaty re-write to do something about the situation.
In Australia, for example, international treaties enjoy the effective status of law under Section 51 of the Australian Constitution. A future government in this country and others with similar constitutional provisions would potentially have legal and moral cover to direct the nature of Internet routing or impose a sender-pays charge on Internet traffic if such a treaty was ratified.
At this stage with six months to go, the only significant public opposition to the proposed ITU rules comes from the United States Internet industry.
As the ITU itself boasts, every member state—large and small—gets an equal vote. The implications for an Internet influenced by global regulations informed by the priorities of totalitarian governments and incumbent telcos need to be discussed—as a matter of urgent priority.