“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”. This quote is often attributed to Mark Twain, but there is no evidence that he ever said it, which ironically proves the saying.
I have been thinking of that saying a lot in the last month as the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) approaches, an event organised by the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU). The Internet and mainstream media are filled with articles and warnings against the upcoming conference. The list of accusers is impressive: Goggle, Vint Cerf, Access Now, Greenpeace, the European Parliament. The list of accusations of what will happen next week in Dubai is similarly impressive. Some of the claims are:
- The keys of the Internet will be given to Vladimir Putin (here).
- The Internet will be in control of governments through the ITU (here).
- The multi-stakeholder model will be scrapped, or is in danger (here).
- The WCIT will create burdensome access fees that will make the Internet more expensive (here).
- The Internet will be subjected to a coup d’etat (here).
Given the seriousness of the accusations, you would think that there would be quite a lot of evidence to point out that we are faced with impending doom, surely so many authors and people cannot all be reacting to a made-up threat, and there is clear documentation of what is about to take place. But since the first article came out warning about the dangers of the WCIT, I am yet to find a single document that provides the smoking gun that will give us more information about what is to happen. How did this get to be? Is it possible that there is no real threat?
Some of the attackers of the ITU have pointed out that the lack of evidence is in itself part of the problem because the preparation process is not transparent enough. But if all of these people are worried, it must be because they have had access to something, so why have these documents not been leaked yet? Well, some have actually been leaked, and the ITU itself has made some documents public. The worst that I could find is this proposal document from Russia, which contains some specific wording on the new International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs). The proposal states the following:
“31A 3A.1 Internet governance shall be effected through the development and application by governments, the private sector and civil society of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures and programmes that shape the evolution and use of the Internet.”
That is not too bad, it recognises the role of multiple stakeholders in the process of governing the Internet. However, the next paragraph contains the single most troublesome proposal out there. It reads:
“31B 3A.2 Member States shall have equal rights to manage the Internet, including in regard to the allotment, assignment and reclamation of Internet numbering, naming, addressing and identification resources and to support for the operation and development of basic Internet infrastructure.”
This is the paragraph that launched a thousand blog posts. How dare countries ask for equal say on how the Internet is run? Everyone knows that the Internet belongs to all of us! Or does it really? As you might guess, the answer is no. The Internet structure means that the Internet is governed by a complex structure that involves the multi-stakeholder model which brings together governments, industries, civil society, users, and the such. This is ICANN, IANA ISOC, the IETEF, etc. But at the top of it all is the United States, holding the strings of ICANN and IANA. So, when you read the above, what really scares many commentators is that some countries are asking for a larger piece of the governance cake. So the US techno-establishment has responded by pulling a couple of interesting rhetoric tricks. Firstly, make everyone believe that the Internet belongs to us. Secondly, use anti-government and anti-UN language, very popular in the United States, and tell people that any sort of different arrangement will be the same as giving Vladimir Putin the keys to the Internet. The most interesting over-the-top claim is that governments are bad, so no government should be given power over the Internet. Other than the one that actually has the power, but nobody mentions.
The reality is that the ITU is neither willing nor capable of changing current Internet governance structures, as some commentators have pointed out. The fact that Russia and other countries want a larger say on Internet governance is not new, it was already a part of the early discussions at the World Summit of the Information Society, held in Tunis in 2005. Even back then, with a much higher level stage, the governance structures were left untouched. Moreover, fears of a fabled takeover of the Internet completely ignore how the UN bodies come to their decisions. The process is one of consensus, where all parties agree on a text, and votes happen only after an agreement has been reached. Given that the US sits at the ITU means that any proposed text by the likes of Russia and China would have to pass their objections, so it is unlikely that the text cited above will ever be placed in a regulation. Furthermore, even if somehow the ITU manages to create a text that calls for a more equal participation by governments in how the Internet is run, the US can simply ignore it, and ICANN can continue to do its thing.
So why the keruffle? This may be a pre-emptive strike by US Internet interests in trying to maintain the status quo, and they have managed to gain the help of large Web heavy-hitters such as Google thanks to Vint Cerf, who is one of the designers of the current governance model. From time to time the powers that be at the FTC and the US Department of Commerce worry that other governments want to make changes, so they flex their muscles, contact some people, and an Internet campaign is born. Never mind that the threat is negligible, the number of articles manages to push the right buttons to keep things as they are.
There is one legitimate concern arising from the WCIT, and it is that it might be possible that some technical documents may make it easier for some countries to continue a process of creating what is known as the Splinternet, a collection of national intranets which have little bearing with what exists at the moment. For many years there has been a growing trend towards centralisation of the Internet, which is indeed a worrying development. However, this is a process that is taking place even without the UN’s intervention, as the current example of Syria pulling the switch on its Internet connection proves. Dictators don’t need the UN’s help to do as they please, its inaction and chronic inefficiency do the trick just as well.
So, I predict that after the WCIT nothing will change, and we may look back on this as the Internet governance equivalent of the Mayan end of the world. Unless the Mayas were right, in which case who controls the Web will be the least of our worries, we’ll be busy out-running volcanic eruptions.