At a U.S. House of Representatives hearing earlier this week, a number of government officials from both sides of the aisle, as well as Google’s chief Internet evangelist and inventor of the TCP/IP protocol Vint Cerf, warned that the U.N.’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) could try to wrestle control away from the U.S.-centric ICANN and “take control of the Internet.” For the most part, all of these fears are completely speculative at this point and as the ITU’s secretary-general Hamadoun I. Touré himself clearly pointed out earlier this year, “this is simply ridiculous.”
Here is some background on why these fears keep popping up: this December, the ITU is scheduled to convene at a major summit in Dubai, the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). During this summit, the ITU’s International Telecommunication Regulations (ITR) treaty, which was adopted all the way back in 1988 is up for revision. These regulations have guided how the organization’s members organize international telecom services ever since. While this treaty has been widely heralded for jump starting the widespread telecom deregulation in the 1990s, it obviously predated widespread usage of the Internet and is overdue for revision.
The ITU has a membership of 193 countries and over 700 private-sector entities and academic institutions (including, for example, Apple and Cisco, but not Google). Its mission is to coordinate the international radio-frequency spectrum and satellite orbits, as well as the development of standards for Internet access, voice and video compression and related issues. In total, the ITU produces or revises more than 200 standards per year. Last but not least, the ITU’s development sector is chartered with assisting developing countries in gaining access to information and telecommunications technologies and help narrowing the digital divide.
Given the commotion around last week’s hearings in the U.S., I talked to ITU senior communications officer Toby Johnson late last week to get the ITU’s perspective on this controversy. As he noted in our conversation, part of the reason why there is a lot of confusion about the ITU potentially trying to wrestle control away from ICANN (and, by extension, the U.S.), is that there tends to be a lot of confusion around how the ITU actually works. The ITRs are, he stressed, not binding regulations but a treaty between the ITU’s member states. The member states then have to implement them through national legislation. They don’t surrender their national rights to the ITU or U.N. by being part of the ITU.
Another reason why this controversy keeps coming up – and will likely continue to do so until at least the Dubai summit – is that the proposals the member states are currently submitting for the revision are not public. So far, Johnson tells me, the states have submitted about 180 pages worth of proposals. While we can’t know what’s in those proposals, the ITU is willing to say that there is nothing in them so far that even comes close to threatening ICANN’s position.
The U.S., by virtue of being a member state of ITU, has access to these documents and in a widely circulated memo (PDF) from earlier this year, the U.S. government itself admitted that it’s quite happy with how the preliminary preparations for the summit have proceeded and that “there are no pending proposals to invest the ITU with ICANN-like Internet governance authority.”
A proposal that would try to take some control away from ICANN could, of course, be submitted before the summit, but even if that happened, it’s unlikely that it would ever get past the proposal stage given that ITU decisions are made by consensus (though they don’t have to be unanimous).
It’s worth noting, too, that there are far more important issues at stake at the Dubai meeting anyway. Instead of attacking ICANN’s position, the meeting will likely focus on questions about taxation, roaming, interoperability, network neutrality, how to get more broadband access to developing countries and other more pressing issues.
If U.S. government officials and folks like Vint Cerf then keep saying no to U.N. government control of the Internet, they do so knowing that they are playing a pretty safe game given how unlikely this scenario really is. Given that people from across the political spectrum in the U.S. feel a certain unease about all things related to the U.N., it’s hard not to look at this as political gamesmanship that values this kind of rhetoric more than a rational debate over how the Internet should be governed.