Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Good and bad reasons to be worried about WCIT

The World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT, pronounced “wicket”) opened Monday in Dubai. If you’re heard about the conference, it’s likely because many articulate and smart proponents of an open internet have been waving arms and warning of the potential dangers that may come from this meeting. Fight For the Future, an organization focused on mobilizing individuals to the defense of a free and open internet, have switched the Internet Defense League’s vaunted “cat signal“, urging supporters to stop an internet coup by the International Telecommunications Union, the UN agency responsible for communication technologies.

There are reasons to be concerned about WCIT and about the ITU asserting more control over Internet governance. But there’s also a great deal of exaggeration and fear-mongering that’s making it hard to see the issues clearly. And one of the reasons offered for defending against an ITU “takeover” is a disturbing one, the idea that the Internet works well enough as it is, and that we should be opposed to any changes that would alter how it functions and is governed.

It’s possible to oppose increased ITU involvement in internet governance without demonizing the organization. It’s possible to believe this is the wrong venue and wrong mechanism without concluding that the Internet works as well as it ever will and ever could. I’m interested in trying to pull some of these arguments apart because I worry some opponents of WCIT are accepting these arguments as a whole package, not considering their individual merits, and may be swallowing some unhealthy presumptions that hinder future debate about internet governance going forward.

I”m far from expert on the topic of WCIT, so I’m going to point to some of the better arguments I’ve heard in the past few weeks. (My friend Sunil Abraham tweeted many helpful links earlier today, and I recommend his Twitter feed for WCIT links from various perspectives.) For general background, I’d recommend Jack Goldsmith’s “opinionated primer” on the topic. To summarize, Goldsmith (who knows a thing or two about internet governance):

- Because WCIT is about amending international rules through a treaty process, it’s a slow, consensus-seeking process that nations can opt out of. In other words, we shouldn’t expect US net regulations to change because of it.

- It’s relevant not because lasting changes will come out of these meetings, but mostly because it gives us a window into what some nations would like in terms of internet governance, and may seek to accomplish through their own national telecoms laws.

In effect, Goldsmith argues that impact isn’t a good reason to pay attention to WCIT, as the gathering is likely to have little direct impact. In that spirit, I want to consider some better and worse reasons to be concerned about the ITU, the WCIT meeting and the broader question of how internet governance is and is not changing.

Good reasons to be concerned about WCIT include:

Opacity:
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 civil society and the general public to be aware of what’s going on in the meeting and to influence the process. As with other international policymaking organizations that work in secret, like the WTO, there’s a good case to be made that these organizations need to be pushed to greater transparency before they are given public trust. WCITleaks, a project from Jerry Brito and Eli Dourado, both researchers at George Mason University, is a laudable effort to increase transparency by inviting WCIT participants to share documents in a public repository.

Censorious governments:
Many of the anti-WCIT arguments begin by asserting that China and Russia would like to take over internet governance and manage the global internet in ways that would restrict speech. Those are valid concerns, and both countries will likely negotiate for an internet governance structure that increases state control over net content. That nations attempt to control the internet isn’t new, nor is the argument that states should have more influence over net governance – as Milton Mueller points out in this helpful piece, states have been seeking increased roles in internet governance since 1996 and have been thwarted. Their response has been to restrict internet usage within their own countries.

Yes, it would be dreadful if China’s internet regulations applied to the whole world. But the current situation isn’t great either: countries create their own regulations to control the internet in part because they can’t get what they want in international fora. The battle over “internet freedom” has devolved into building expensive and unwieldy tools to invite a small set of Chinese and Iranian users to use the American and European internets, instead of the Chinese internet… a solution that won’t and can’t scale. The challenge of Chinese censorship is a helpful reminder that we don’t have binding international internet regulation, and probably never will. WCIT is worrisome because proposals to control the internet through widespread filtering and corporate regulation (China’s approach) or through legal and extralegal intimidation (Russia’s approach) may gain adherents and allies, and because nations that haven’t taken major steps to regulate the internet may look at these nations as examples to follow. But this is an argument for the US to engage in multinational processes like the ITU, to influence nations still on the fence, not to contest the legitimacy of the process.

The substance of proposals Even if we discount Jack Goldsmith’s suggestion that little is likely to come out of WCIT, it’s worth considering what potential impact proposals that have been put forth might have on Internet governance, if only to see what rival visions are competing with the status quo. Michael Geist argues that the most significant proposals on the table are not about who controls the internet, but who pays for it. He references a proposal from ETNO, an organization of European telecoms, that would start charging large content providers a carriage fee for delivering content – i.e., YouTube would pay a European network operator to reach European viewers. (Large internet content providers, predictably, hate this proposal. The one defender I’ve found of the proposal is Jean-Christope Nohias, who offers this stem-winder of a piece, accusing Google and other internet giants of hypocrisy in advocating for a system in which the poor pay money to access wealthy country’s networks.)

Dwayne Winseck sees concerns about the ETNO proposal, and other attempts to change internet billing, as overblown, but offers a long list of proposals to worry about, affecting the militarization of the internet, threats to privacy, anonymity and government control. In some cases, the proposals try to solve legitimate threats (like spam) and over-reach in terms of implementation, while at other times, they are simply trying to assert more government control, and bear opposition on principal. But we’d have a more intelligent debate about the future of the internet if we could address proposals individually, rather than attacking the process and the institution of the ITU as a whole.

Here are three reasons I’ve seen for opposing WCIT and the ITU that I think are unjustified, and may cause long-term harm to our conversations about internet governance.

Fear of multilateralism:
Steven Strauss argues we should oppose WCIT because it has UN sponsorship, and pulls out a laundry list of anti-UN complaints to justify his opposition. He offers faint praise to distinguish the ITU from the UN’s “standard meaningless international boondoggles”, suggesting that it has real power and might lead to substantial rule changes. But his argument centers on the strong representation of repressive governments on the UN’s Human Rights Council.

Yes, the presence of the UAE, Pakistan and Ethiopia on the UNHRC is an embarrassment. But the ITU and the UNHRC are two of dozens of institutions within the UN, and even most critics of the UN don’t want to see institutions like UNICEF, the World Food Program or the High Commission on Refugees disappear. Defenders of human rights on the internet often point to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a UN document, as a broadly adopted document that protects freedom of expression. Frank LaRue, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, has been a powerful advocate for protecting online speech. It would be a shame to disrespect the work a figure like LaRue is trying to do by dismissing UN institutions as a whole.

The reason so many controversial issues are being brought up in multilateral venues like the ITU is that existing “multisectoral” internet institutions like ICANN, IANA, IETF and others have had a hard time ensuring broad international representation. Some of the frustration other countries feel about internet governance comes from the slow pace these institutions have taken towards supporting global concerns, like providing full support for non-English domain names and suffixes. My friend Rebecca MacKinnon has an excellent essay on this topic in Foreign Policy, pointing out that there’s very little developing world participation in these groups and that they are very slowly finding ways to change their culture to be more welcoming to participants who don’t have years of experience in the internet engineering community.

The solution to these problems is not a retreat from multilateralism – it’s to find ways that existing internet institutions can better represent voices and perspectives from around the world. The good news is that many of the folks within the IETF, ICANN and other institutions understand this challenge, even if some people attacking the ITU don’t.

Because governments should never regulate
FCC commissioner Robert McDowell attributes the success of the Internet to the ITU’s failure to oversee it in 1988: “This insulated the Internet from economic and technical regulation and quickly became the greatest deregulatory success story of all time.” Only a regulator for an agency as broken and corrupted by corporate influence as the FCC would dare to suggest that the role of a regulator is not to regulate.

How’s the FCC’s lassez faire policy working out in the US? We’ve got internet access that’s almost four times as expensive as it is in France and roughly one tenth the speed. Why? Largely because the FCC has failed to ensure that markets remain competitive, that open access policies allow small players to build competitive businesses, and that broadband services reach rural areas. Yes, it’s fantastic that the internet now reaches over 2 billion people. But we’ve got more than five billion more people who can’t access the internet, which is becoming increasingly important as a space for political discussions, a channel for delivery of government services and a pathway towards education. If regulators want to take seriously the challenge of ensuring universal access, as American regulators did with telephony and electricity in generations past, that’s something to be lauded, not dismissed.

Because the Internet is perfect.
This argument is rarely stated outright, though this piece by Mike Masnick in TechDirt does us the favor of making it explicit: “The internet works just fine. The only reason to ‘fix’ it, is to ‘break’ it in exactly the way the ITU wants, which is to favor a few players who have done nothing innovative to actually deserve it.”

I can think of several ways in which the internet doesn’t work just fine. It’s too expensive for too many people. In the developing world, it’s largely spreading through mobile operators whose pricing makes it unlikely that citizens of these nations will become content creators. The process of peering and interconnection creates a great competitive advantage for large network operators and leaves developing nations with very high charges for access. The current configuration of the Internet neither does a great job of protecting anonymity for those who want and need it, or authenticating identity when it’s critical. It’s surprisingly fragile to malicious attack like DDoS or accidental misconfiguration.

Do I think the ITU is likely to propose helpful solutions to these problems? No. Do I have good solutions to these complex problems? Not especially. But we have no hope of solving these problems if we declare that the Internet functions perfectly and needs no improvement.

There’s a tendency for people who love the Internet to become conservative, almost reactionary, about its governance. We’ve seen so many good intentioned attempts to improve the Internet fail and know of so many ill-intentioned plans to break the Internet that we may have raised the ad-hoc and improvisational methods of governance that have worked well into natural laws. Breaking the Internet – as some proposals in front of the ITU might well do – would be a bad thing. Concluding that we can never change the Internet for the better would be almost as bad.

3 Responses to “Good and bad reasons to be worried about WCIT”

  1. Excellent points. I do think there’s a lot embedded in the ITU debate that are barely remembered cultural echoes of the Bellhead vs Nethead battles ( http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/4.10/atm_pr.html ). It’s important to extract the reasoning behind any opposition, in case we simply fall into the same problems via some other route.

    An example: if too much control of Internet infrastructure by government and state-influenced telcos is the problem we’re tackling, then we’re already heading into that world by virtue of the state-influenced, telco-run nature of mobile broadband in the majority of countries.

    The ITU makes a big show of demanding greater access to the Internet. That may be a feint to justify more influence. But if other parties don’t think or act on the same problem, it’ll be ITU-connected companies and states that will be the gatekeepers to billions of users.

  2. Bev Freeman says:

    Ethan, would you comment soon on the action by Austrian young lawyers (reported in NYT this week) against Facebook around privacy issues? This has to do with not following principles by EU. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/06/technology/06iht-rawdata06.html?pagewanted=all

  3. Tony Roberts says:

    Thanks for this article Ethan. I would like to better understand your comment that mobile operator pricing will prevent local content creation. The dominant narrative is that Africa’s connectivity is booming via mobile connectivity and that Africa’s tech hub boom will generate software innovation. Are we not being told the whole truth?

    Your text: “I can think of several ways in which the internet doesn’t work just fine. It’s too expensive for too many people. In the developing world, it’s largely spreading through mobile operators whose pricing makes it unlikely that citizens of these nations will become content creators.”

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