The ITU says the 1988 ITRs need a spruce-up to take account of the Web. Google, Microsoft, Cisco, Verizon and others say that's exactly what they're worried about. By Ian Scales.
The UN arm is working towards a revision of the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) and it's gearing up with some 'consolidated input' for a meeting this month when it will produce a report to be considered at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai, 3-14 December.
The ITU says emerging themes for the revised ITRs include: the right to communicate; security in the use of ICTs and the protection of national resources; taxation; international mobile roaming; misuse and hijacking of international numbers; and interoperability. According to Secretary-General of the ITU, Hamadoun Touré, the revision of the ITRs presents a "unique opportunity for the world community to bring the benefits of the information society to all the world’s citizens.” So far so good.
But tech firms and citizens' rights groups worry that buried in the high-flying rhetoric there are some nasties designed to enable governments to wrest control over the Internet inside their own borders for their own ends. While the headline policy talks of "the right to communicate" the background chatter from a number of middle east and emerging country governments is of the need to monitor the Internet to fight terrorism.
Would the Arab Spring uprisings - part enabled by access to twitter, Facebook, YouTube and so on - be defined as 'terrorism' under whatever new rules are formulated?
That's one big worry, as are proposals designed to advance cultural protection (ie censorship, particularly religion-based censorship).
Observers point out that the rhetorical tide of the past few years, from the bombastic French president Nicolas Sarkozy to the sinister Russian president Putin, to a variety of middle-eastern governments, has been more about bringing the Internet 'under control' than about extending its benefits to all the world's citizens. Little wonder that they worry about a concerted push by authoritarian governments to change the rules - after all, the dictators' lives may depend upon it.
Then there is the long-standing financial grievance from European and other telcos and their governments, who feel that the growth of the Web has been at their expense. Several Arab nations have lined up to propose that they should be allowed to “take measures to ensure that fair compensation is received” for the flow of Internet traffic. They apparently have in mind the recreation of a version of the old 'accounting rate' system which saw huge outflows of revenue from low tariff nations to high tariff nations for incoming telephone calls.
Expect similar proposals over revenue-sharing. The idea that Telcos/ISPs are not getting a fair share of the revenues from the Internet has been a live issue for European telcos for some time and seems to have achieved the status of undeniable fact (when in fact it's built on very shakey foundations). In its press release the ITU itself says, "Data volumes are increasing much faster than the infrastructure needed to carry it, and there is a risk of a lack of investment in the development of the infrastructure. This is also something that could be addressed at the WCIT."
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