The World Conference on International Telecommunication showed that countries are not yet ready to arrive at a consensus on regulation and control of the Internet

The World Conference on International Telecommunication (WCIT) that concluded on December 14 saw much heated debate. Some countries wanted to use the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to gain intergovernmental control of the World Wide Web. Some saw it as an opportunity to democratise the Internet, by replacing U.S. and corporate domination of Internet policy, with a more intergovernmental process. Others insisted that the Internet must be left alone.

The result is that after many days’ deliberations, there was no consensus. The amended International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) document has not yet been signed by over 50 countries, of which some like the United States have refused to sign altogether, while others have said that they will need to consult with their national governments before signing.

This article discusses the broader issue under question, which is, whether ITU is the best forum to solve the cross-border problems that arise in relation to the Internet.

WCIT, ITU and ITRs

The ITU has been creating international policy from the days in which the telegraph was prevalent. Although it is now a United Nations agency, its existence predates the U.N. As technology evolved, forcing the telegraph to give way to the telephone, the ITU created new standards for telephony. It even rechristened itself from ‘International Telegraph Union’ to ‘International Telecommunications Union’.

The ITU performs an essential role in ensuring that multiple states with their varying technology, standards and legal systems, are able to interconnect and co-ordinate. Its harmonising rules and standards make co-ordination easier and cheaper than having each state come to an agreement with every other state. The ITRs within the ITU framework facilitate co-ordination by creating binding rules for member states.

Some countries’ proposals for the amendment of the ITRs would have affected content on the Internet substantially. However, after prolonged negotiation, the final draft that was under consideration contained an explicit statement excluding such content from the ITRs’ purview. This draft also came with a resolution that made reference to states’ elaborating their Internet related public policy positions in ITU fora, which was a source of controversy.

Some of the initial suggestions like Russia’s controversial proposal would have given the ITU greater sway over the Internet, permitting it to lay down global standards. These standards may have encouraged countries to inspect data transmitted across the Internet to check whether it is undesirable content raising serious privacy and freedom of speech concerns, especially in countries that do not protect these rights.

The global standards created by the ITU would have permeated to the companies that create the web-based applications that we use, and the resulting law and technological choices would have affected individual users.

Internet governance

The ITU makes its decisions using a traditional model that only seeks consensus between governments, and this is far removed from the way in which the Internet has been governed thus far. Therefore, although expanding the ITU’s mandate to the Internet may seem natural to those who have followed its evolution mirroring the evolution of information technology, the ITU’s manner of functioning is viewed by many as being at odds with the more multi-stakeholder and ad hoc system used to build Internet policy.

In the 1990s, John Perry Barlow proclaimed that cyberspace was outside national borders, and questioned the authority and legitimacy of a national government’s attempts to govern it. Over the years, it has become clear that national governments can exert jurisdiction in cyberspace: filtering content, launching surveillance of users, and creating law that impacts citizens’ behaviour online directly and indirectly.

However, governments’ exertion of will on Internet users is tempered greatly by the other forces that have a strong influence on the Internet. User-behaviour and content often depend on the policies of major service providers like Google, Yahoo, Twitter and Facebook.

Key standards and functions like the allocation of domain names and developing of Internet standards are managed by organisations like ICANN and IETF, which are not governmental organisations. Features like user anonymity are based on technological choices on the World Wide Web. Therefore, governments face significant obstacles and counterbalancing power when they attempt to impose their will on citizens online.

The ITU can weigh this power balance in favour of governments. Many fear that more government power will lead to more censorship, surveillance and stifling of the innovation that is integral to the evolution of Internet. But others support ITU intervention, in the belief that an international inter-governmental regulatory body would be more accountable, and would prevent corporate abuse of power.

Several of the aforementioned corporations, as well as regulatory bodies under question, are headquartered in the United States. There are those who see this as excessive U.S. influence on the Internet, eroding the sovereignty of other states, which have relatively limited influence over what their citizens can transmit and access online. These people see the ITU as a forum that can democratise Internet Governance, giving states shared influence over the web. However, this shared influence is resisted by those who find that the U.S. influence offers them more leverage and protection for their freedom of speech, than increased influence of countries that threaten this internationally accepted human right.

Powerful arguments in favour of increased ITU involvement include highlighting the dangers of abandoning the Internet to the free market. It is true that markets need some regulation to guard against malfunction and abuse of power by stronger players. However, the significant question is not whether these markets should be regulated, but how they should be regulated. Unfortunately, many of the arguments that supported expansion of the ITU’s mandate failed to establish why the ITU is the best solution to the problems plaguing the Internet, rather than being the most readily available reaction.

Any regulatory intervention must have very clear objectives, and some estimate of its likely impact. The intervention must not be considered in isolation but in contrast with other ways to achieve the same goals. Although some of the serious transnational issues plaguing the Internet need international solutions, the ITU, at least in its current avatar, is not necessarily the best remedy. It also remains unclear exactly what effect ITU intervention would have on the Internet — whether it would really offer solutions as intended, or whether it would prove more detrimental than useful, condoning of human rights violations and slowing the blistering innovation that is characteristic of the Internet.

Lack of consensus

Therefore, some of the initial concerns expressed by the countries that refused to sign the ITRs were legitimate. However, the final ITRs document addressed many of these concerns. The dissent emerged over the insertion of text in the preamble that recognised member states’ rights to access international telecommunication networks. These rights, being expressed only in the preamble, are not enforceable, even if they express intentions that are unacceptable to some.

The debates at the WCIT made it clear that the world is not yet ready to come to a unified position on this subject. Perhaps the ITU’s continuation in its path towards increasing, and making effective, multi-stakeholder participation will be the unifying factor some day, if it evolves into a forum which everyone sees as sufficiently democratic, transparent and accountable for Internet policy.

(The writer is Assistant Professor of Law at National Law University, Delhi, and a Fellow of the Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore. She attended the WCIT from December 3-14)

More In: Lead | Opinion