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Explained: The fuss over the UN internet takeover

There’s nothing wrong in principle with UN oversight. It’s who wants it that poses the threat to internet freedom.

Yesterday, 55 countries led by the US refused to sign a treaty that they say expands the remit of the UN’s telecommunications arm, the ITU, to include the internet. Despite the ITU’s repeated assurances that the 10-day summit is not about the internet, the topic dominated discussion. In the wee hours of Thursday morning, a resolution calling for the ITU to “play an active role” in the internet was passed amid procedural confusion. The next day, Iran forced a vote on two controversial clauses about security and spam. For the US and its allies, it was the last straw.

The World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) hasn’t really made headlines, but the online reaction to the new treaty’s been furious. Given the zealous nature of internet fanatics, that’s not surprising. But developed nations have been extraordinarily united in standing against what they see as an attempt by governments to take control of the internet. Is it really such a bad idea?

Starting at first principles
At face value, the concept of government oversight of the internet isn’t outrageous. Governments routinely intervene in supporting critical infrastructure: roads, public transport, energy, post, to name a few. This extends to telecommunications too: radio spectrum is regulated for obvious reasons, and governments often take a keen interest in telephony, both fixed and mobile.  In fact, those areas are where the ITU has been active—and successful—in co-ordinating efforts to bridge telecommunications globally.

The claim from advocates of ITU internet oversight is that telecommunications and the internet are inseparable. This isn’t quite true, but they do go hand in hand. Telecommunications is the physical infrastructure and basic conventions that make data transfer possible. In engineering speak, we call this the “lower layers”, or more specifically the physical layer.

The internet (in hugely oversimplified terms) is the interconnected networks that facilitate getting information from an arbitrary A to an arbitrary B. This, too, involves conventions, but the standards here specify how to route data, as opposed to how to transmit it. Of course, the internet “sits on top of”, and hence relies on telecommunications. But the two are distinguishable. To draw an analogy, in a room full of people, “telecommunications” is the medium (audible speech) and language you use to talk; “the internet” is how you find the person you want to talk to.

That doesn’t automatically mean the ITU should stay out of the internet. The postal system and phone networks, for example, have extensive government oversight (in most countries, a legislated monopoly). So why the resistance?

The status quo
The current governance arrangements are basically historical accident. The internet was born out of an experiment among defence scientists in America in the 1960s. The experiment grew, and grew, and as Vint Cerf put it, “the experiment never ended.” It’s no coincidence, then, the many non-profit organisations overseeing the internet today, including ICANN and the Internet Society (among others), are headquartered and incorporated in the United States.

These organisations run in a “multi-stakeholder model”, largely driven by engineers from the private sector and academia. Governments are treated just like everyone else. The US and its allies, which include the EU countries, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, cite the lack of government steering as one of the internet’s greatest strengths, responsible for its unparalleled growth and rapid innovation.

The lack of government control is what makes Russia, China, the UAE and allies uneasy. This is especially true where values such as civil stability take precedence over freedom of expression. But also, they feel that the US has an unfair amount of influence. After all, ICANN, which is responsible for internet addressing, operates under a memorandum of understanding with the US Department of Commerce.

While the US should be praised for defending freedom, it has to be said that it’s acting in its own interests. Most major internet companies reside in the US, so financially, it captures most of the profits. (One of the WCIT proposals was to charge those companies for sending traffic internationally.)

The real problem
So the issue the US and allies take is not on principle, but on practicality. Firstly, they argue that the status quo has served the internet exceptionally well. Secondly, and more importantly, they note that the countries who want the ITU to have more of a hand in the internet are the same countries as those who continually shove freedom of expression aside.

The ITU has tried to insist that it doesn’t have internet governance ambitions. Unfortunately, its members see differently. A Russian-led coalition submitted (and withdrew under pressure) a proposal to give governments “equal rights to manage the internet”. Other proposals by Russia and its allies, including China, Iran and Algeria, run along a theme of internet control. Last year, Vladimir Putin told Hamadoun Touré, the ITU’s secretary-general, that he was keen on “establishing international control over the Internet using the monitoring and supervisory capability of the ITU.”

The US and allies fear that conceding to any push to authorise the ITU to finger into the internet would allow these regimes to up-end the free and open nature of the internet. That’s debatable—states already have the sovereign right to control whatever they like within their borders (as these regimes normally do), just as the US and allies do to keep it free and open. But it would at least add to their rhetorical legitimacy. Also, the US is presumably wary of signing anything that could oblige or pressure them to co-operate with governments who want to change the private multi-stakeholder model.

The nature of the ITU
The ITU does some excellent work in facilitating international telecommunications capability. It’s helpful with co-ordinating radio spectrum between countries, and many of its standards form the basis of phone and mobile networks today. Also, the new treaty isn’t all bad: it contains laudable agreements on international roaming charges, access to fibre networks for developing countries and a unified international emergency number.

But the ITU, while “founded on the principle of co-operation between governments and the private sector”, remains (unsurprisingly) much more government-centric than the organisations currently managing the internet. For example, while private-sector members can participate, only states have rights to vote and nominate potential ITU officials. This makes many sceptical about its ability to be part of the multi-stakeholder model.

Whether the new treaty (called the International Telecommunications Regulations, or ITRs) actually does cover the internet is a point of contention. ITU officials insist that the plenary resolution on “fostering” the internet is “non-binding” on states, and that despite the articles on network security and spam, “content-related issues” are explicitly excluded. But that’s not what Russia and allies were hoping for, and 55 countries obviously weren’t convinced. The procedure by which Russia, Iran and allies got their texts “agreed” upon was admittedly dodgy, especially by UN standards. In the end, the US and allies weren’t willing to accept an agreement that they feel gives the ITU or its member states a mandate to look at the internet.

The implications of the new treaty, still signed by 89 countries, remain to be seen.  What is clear is that the battle for internet control won’t be going away any time soon.

(Photo credit: ITU)

Yes, the new ITRs do cover “content” and the “Internet”

ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré insists that the proposed UN treaty doesn’t cover the Internet or content issues. He’s wrong.

The World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) has largely collapsed over an impasse between a bloc led by Russia, Algeria and Iran, who want the ITU (the telecommunications arm of the UN) to play a greater role in the internet, and a bloc led by the United States, who don’t.  In an attempt to salvage whatever he can of the meeting—as the US and its allies all announce they will not sign the treaty—Dr Touré released a statement insisting that “the new ITR treaty does NOT cover content issues” and “did NOT include provisions on the Internet” (emphasis in original). Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

The problem lies in articles 5A and 5B of the new treaty, and in plenary resolution 3.  Articles 5A and 5B say:

[5A] Member States shall individually and collectively endeavour to ensure the security and robustness of international telecommunications networks…

[5B] Member States should endeavour to take necessary measures to prevent the propagation of unsolicited bulk electronic communications…

In order for these not to be “content”-related, you have to take a very narrow view of the definition of “content”. If Dr Touré meant that the ITRs don’t, for example, mention a ban on pornography, he’s correct. But content still ties in with 5A and 5B.

For 5B, it’s obvious. Unsolicited bulk electronic communications, i.e. spam, is all about content. In order to know whether something is spam, you need to know what the message says.

Article 5A might seem more innocuous, but it has similar implications. To be sure, some of network security relates to defence of physical infrastructure. But most of telecommunications security is about warding off cyber-attacks. These are basically inflicted by manipulating content in a way that the recipient can’t handle, either in volume (denial-of-service attacks), in substance (viruses, hacking) or just deception (identity theft), as Paul Budde explains in a post. Indeed, cyber-security is often about protecting information (New Zealanders will recall the recent MSD incident).

To be fair to Dr Touré, it is true that the first paragraphs says explicitly:

1.1 a) […] These Regulations do not address the content-related aspects of telecommunications.

This article was introduced as a compromise to make 5A and 5B more amenable to countries who want the ITRs to keep out of the internet. But it was a struggle—the countries backing 5A and 5B weren’t happy with it. Indeed, opposition to 5A and 5B broadly stems from a suspicion that, despite the careful wording, the articles would effectively make way for the Internet to creep into the scope of the ITU.

Resolutions and “non-binding” nonsense
Most significantly, there’s plenary resolution 3, “to foster an enabling environment for the greater growth of the Internet”. Dr Touré and WCIT Chair Mohamed Alghanim have tried to downplay this resolution to media, calling it “non-binding” and not as significant as resolution of the ITU’s parent, the UN.

Unfortunately for their assertions, it also includes this text:

… instructs the Secretary-General

1 to continue to take the necessary steps for the ITU to play an active and constructive role in the development of the multistakeholder model of the Internet…

Even to the extent that it doesn’t bind member states, then, it still instructs the Secretary-General to seek a greater role for the ITU in the Internet. You don’t need to mention the slippery-slope thing to note that this would clearly involves the Internet. And it’s rich to say it’ll have no effect on the Internet—if that’s the case, why bother?

But more fundamentally, the attitude expressed here—that it’s not binding—is dangerous ground for signing the treaty. International agreements don’t work when countries sign them without intending to follow them. If countries can’t agree to a resolution, they shouldn’t sign saying they do, accepting some moral force even if it’s not legally binding.

Poor Touré
I really don’t envy Dr Touré’s job.  He’s been doing double-speak all year, mainly because he has to—as Secretary-General, he can’t be seen taking sides. His job is to find common ground among member states. To uphold the credibility of the ITU, he also has retain a degree of optimism that consensus can be found, as he’s been repeating all year. Deep down, he must have known it was a lost cause.

Dr Touré has been trying his best to put some positive spin on the WCIT. In some respects, he’s right: the agreements on international roaming charges, access to optical fibre networks for developing countries, and a single international emergency number were all laudable and widely supported. But it is still his regrettable job to defend to the public simultaneously two opposing visions for the Internet.

The problem with double-speak is that your words eventually become meaningless. Sadly, that’s what’s happened here. Here’s reality: at the WCIT, rifts grew, discussions became polarised, and consensus slipped steadily further away. It failed to do what it set out to do: revise the ITRs in a way agreeable to all. It didn’t keep away from the Internet, as he promised. Dr Touré doubtless knows all this. But so long as the ITU rests on his shoulders, it’s not for him to say out loud.

(Photo credit: ITU)

Will the UN take over the internet?

Google is scaremongering. But the UN’s ITU isn’t exactly being comforting either.

The headlines are scary. “European Parliament warns against UN internet control”, the BBC had; “[US] House approves resolution to keep internet control out of UN hands” in the Huffington Post. Mainstream coverage has been regrettably scarce though, with almost all commentary in tech papers like CNET, PCWorld and ZDNet.

In a nutshell, then: the US, Canada and the EU are worried that this month’s meeting of the UN’s telecommunications arm could lead to a UN takeover of the internet. Google has launched a campaign, “Take Action”, to urge netizens to “join together to keep the internet free and open”. More specifically, they’re worried about proposals from “some governments”—read China, Russia—who don’t value freedom of expression as much as the West does.

The meeting is the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), convened by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to negotiate new International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs). The ITU has its roots in telegraph and mobile networks, and they publish a lot of standards in that area, including several I work with in my day job.

But the internet is facilitated by several multi-stakeholder organisations incorporated in the US. This means governments are on an equal footing with organisations and engineers (sometimes with special provision for government input, sometimes without). Noting unease in some governments at this model, some worry that this could change.

Google vs ITU
Google is especially anxious. Vint Cerf, its chief internet evanglist, often called one of the “fathers of the internet”, wrote this op-ed piece for CNN echoing his company’s campaign’s urge to “fight for freedom”. A hair-raising battle call, but not really necessary. Legal experts, such as Harvard’s Professor Jack Goldsmith, doubt that WCIT will see any move of the sort, owing to the constraints of international law.

The ITU, for its part, has been at pains to explain that this isn’t what the WCIT is about. But its cries are unconvincing, because its bureaucrats aren’t the ones who make the decisions. The fact is that Russia’s and others’ proposal’s have pointed at their vision of a more controlled internet, and that those proposals have been debated. Already, the WCIT has approved a Chinese-proposed “deep packet inspection” standard that some say could be an “actual threat to user privacy”.

Google is, too, unfair to criticise the WCIT for being a “closed-doors meeting”. But while ITU can call itself (mostly) “transparent” and having corporate members, Google was correct to say that only countries can vote.

Poor bureaucrats
This puts the ITU’s bureaucrats somewhere between a rock and a hard place. I watched a discussion that the Guardian held on internet governance in October; its ITU representative there was just as unconvincing. It’s not the ITU, per se, that we should be worried about. It’s proposals by other member states that could be adopted by the ITU.

ITU bureaucrats repeatedly point out that the WCIT can’t override ITU’s constitution and other international law guaranteeing freedom of speech. But they can’t tell member states to withdraw their proposals. If they pass, they would in theory be rendered null, but it’s not clear how that would be effected. The most likely scenario is that not much happens: the ITRs (explicitly) don’t trump national sovereignty. So as far as freedom of speech goes, nations will continue as they are.

Of course, attempts to bring more governmental control to the internet should always be met with concern. There’s just less to fret about with this WCIT than some would have you think.

(Photo credit: ITU)