Is the Web Destined to be Regulated by the United Nations?

You may recall we commented about Internet governance awhile back because, well, although you might feel very removed from such issues, how the rules of the global Internet are fashioned and enforced will have a clear potential impact on how you do business in the digital age of an always-on society.  We mentioned then that a big meeting about this was scheduled in Dubai this Fall. It arrived a week ago today, and is underway – a 12-day conference debating who does (or should) rule the global Internet.

Some would argue (and we tend to agree) that the very success of the greatest global communications revolution since the advent of telephone happened because there has been a meritocracy rather than an top-down administrative, politically motivated bureaucracy.  How’s that worked out?  Well in fact, the Internet as the network of networks has experienced no down time since its inception some 50 years ago.  Ponder that for a moment.  Oh sure, there have been partial slow downs in service, but to be sure, the Internet has never had to be shut down and restarted nor experienced a “blue screen of death" (here's the new version).

Well, this could all be at risk, given that those nations who have commercial and/or geopolitical interests at stake have raised the issue up to the United Nations.  But let’s emphasize the word “could” at this point (at the risk of getting caught up in the hyperbole of both sides of the argument.)  Regardless, for digital commerce managers, we think it’s a good idea to keep an eye on this.  And you can look to us to keep you apprised (feel free to reach out) since one of our partners is a sustaining member of the Internet Society and long time observer/contributor to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

Here’s the deal: the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT, pronounced “wicket”), began this past Monday, with a goal of drafting a new treaty to set the stage for international telecommunications regulations.  The thing is, “telecommunications” as the term now applies, effectively means the Internet.  Perhaps nuanced, the issue essentially comes down to whether the rules that have applied to “circuit switched networks” (that is your good old telephone) should equally or perhaps more so apply to “packet switched networks” (in particular the packet switched network – the network of networks we know as the global Internet).

Let’s back up just a bit at the risk of this turning into an unintended treatise (there are gigabytes of far better content about this via a Google search).  But to summarize, the current rules that govern telecommunications on a global basis were put in place nearly a quarter of a century ago, in 1988.  And the conference is sponsored by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU); that is, the United Nations agency for information and communication technologies.  The intent to change and/or update the rulebook has spread worries about a cyber-grab for centralized control of the Internet by the United Nations.  Consider the ITU's own self-proclaimed basis for so-doing.

There are arguments on both sides regarding Internet governance, each driven by their own commercial or geo-political agenda.  However, we do believe that to an extent the Internet Society has unwittingly brought some of this on itself.  The reason so many controversial issues are being brought up in the ITU is that existing “multi-sectoral” components of the Internet Society like ICANN, IANA, or the IETF have had difficulties ensuring broad international representation. Some countries express frustration about  the slow pace these institutions have taken towards supporting global concerns, such as providing full support for non-English domain names and different character sets.

The fears are fueled by criticism for a lack of transparency in this process to date including unpublished documents and secret proposals catalyzed by inevitable political horse-trading destined for debate.  And that’s a far cry from the meritocracy and transparent processes that have formed and refined the Internet for the past near half a century.  You see, WCIT is open to member governments and to hundreds of corporate and organization members, but their proposals and deliberations are secret. This makes it very difficult for the general public to know what’s going on in the meeting and to influence the process.  As with other international policy making organizations that work in secret (like the WTO), there’s a good case to be made that the WCIT and ITU need to be pressed into greater transparency before they are given public trust.

The results of this secret, some say “land grab” are fueled by the nature of some of the agendas being advanced in this confidential proceeding.  For instance (and here is where the proverbial rubber hits the tarmac for our Clients), the most significant proposal on the table is not about who controls the Internet, but who pays for it.  ETNO, an organization of European telecoms, is proposing to start charging large content providers a carriage fee for delivering content; in other words, YouTube and Facebook, for instance, would have to pay a European network operator to reach European viewers.  Let your mind wander on what such a proposal once implemented, could portend for a range of other digital commerce activities.  This quickly can become the proverbial slippery slope.

Coverage of this matter in the U.S. edition of The Guardian with an editorial by Dan Gilmor, offers this strong quote addressing equally concerning issues of censorship, content regulation, and most disturbingly, the mechanics of how the Internet routes traffic:

The very idea that the ITU could obtain and exert major regulatory powers over the Internet is a happy one only to dictators and others who believe the Internet needs to be controlled. We've seen again and again what nation states like Syria, China, Saudi Arabia and others do when they are unhappy with online content or conversations. Even a hint that such censorship could spread should be, and is, anathema to people who believe in fundamental free speech rights. Russia, in particular, has proposed regulations (pdf) that the United States ambassador to the meeting called "the most shocking and most disappointing" of any he'd seen.

So, perhaps its no surprise that one of the most dominant players in the Internet’s growth and commercial maturity, Google, is emerging as the most vocal critic.  To be sure, there are plenty of others, we think there should be a whole bunch more.  Google, for now, however, is leading the charge with its own campaign launched last month calling for all Internet users (yeah, that would include you) to lobby their governments to charge that the conference is not the forum to determine the future (and/or fate) of the global Internet.  The problem is, Google explains, only governments have a voice in the ITU.  And this includes government without any interest in a free and open Internet.  You can probably guess which governments they might be; Dan’s quote above certainly calls some out publicly.

We think the key battleground at the conference will be the proposal from Russia and several African nations (alluded to above) to wrest control of the Internet from the Internet Society’s ICANN (the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers), the organization that helps oversee the Internet naming and addressing schemas, and other groups that are primarily based in the U.S.  The Russian proposal, leaked on WCITleaks.ORG, a web site set up to counter the lack of transparency, calls for individual countries to "have equal rights to manage their Internet including in regard to the allotment, assignment and reclamation of Internet numbering, naming addressing and identification resources."

These developments and issues are not going away.  While there is little likelihood of immediate or even near term direct impact to how our Clients conduct digital business and build and sustain customer relationships in an online world, we believe it is imperative to keep eyes wide open and ears trained forward as this unfolds.  Explore some of the links in this article, and search online for more.  Familiarize yourselfwith this development, and/or stay in touch with us as we will continue to closely monitor this through our Partner who remains active in the Internet Society.  Although this topic may seem tangential to the matters of customer intelligence and relationship management, make no mistake of its potential impact down the road—particularly for those of you conducting global digital commerce.

Let us know what you think.  And let’s elevate the conversation.