Hyping one threat to hide another

The U.S. and dominant global Internet companies fear regulation because it will adversely affect their control over the communication realm

November 28, 2012 12:36 am | Updated 12:37 am IST

121128 - Lead - ITUs and internet control

28th edpage sketch

121128 - Lead - ITUs and internet control 28th edpage sketch

A lot of global attention right now is focussed on the World Conference on International Telecommunications of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) which will get under way in Dubai next week. This meeting is taking up a review of International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs). When the ITRs were last reviewed in 1988, the Internet was not commonplace and, therefore, did not find mention. In 2012, it is difficult to think of global communication without the Internet. The key question today is whether the remit of the ITU should extend to the Internet or not, and if indeed it should, to what parts and aspects of the Internet, and in what manner.

One summary view, quite popular in many quarters, is that with the Internet taking over global communication systems, there is no role for the ITU anymore. Unlike traditional telecommunication — largely, telephony — global Internet traffic is mediated entirely through commercial arrangements among private players with almost no involvement of a regulator. Free market proponents, having greatly dominated the discourse so far, hold that the free market has fully triumphed, and delivered, in relation to the Internet. This model should not be disturbed. There is, therefore, no need for any kind of regulation of the Internet.

‘Free market’ view

This ‘free market’ view has found a powerful ally among freedom of expression groups, so much so that the debate about the future of the ITU is almost entirely fronted by evocative appeals about preserving the Internet as the ultimate domain of free expression. Unlike market fundamentalism, there are no two views about freedom of expression among most groups and people, and thus such a strategy is understandable. Perhaps for similar reasons, Hillary Clinton has spelled ‘Internet freedom’ as a key U.S. foreign policy agenda. It may, however, need deeper thought and analysis to assess whether the real agenda here is to use the new Internet-based global communication realm — with the unprecedented domination of U.S. companies in it — as the key means for global economic, social, cultural and political domination in the post-industrial world. Any kind of global regulation of the Internet, or even articulation of global principles of public interest, does not serve this agenda.

The issue of freedom of expression vis-à-vis regulation of the Internet is of course very real. States are quite nervous about the transformational new means that allow citizens to exercise voice and associational power as never before. They are scrambling to get their hands on some lever or the other to prevent the potential damage. And it is not only the developing countries that are busy in this regard, so are the developed ones, greatly enhancing their surveillance capabilities. Nevertheless, at the ITU very few countries have floated proposals that could increase governmental control over Internet content. These proposals mostly pertain to subverting the current globally managed Internet names and addresses system, and the globally configured Internet traffic routing, to create more controllable national Internet spaces, or ‘national segments’ of the Internet, as one proposal calls them. There is very little support for these proposals. Almost all developed countries and most developing ones, including India, have not supported these.

At the recently concluded U.N. Internet Governance Forum at Baku, a reporter asked Terry Kramer, the chief U.S. delegate to the upcoming ITU conference, what the whole fuss is about when decisions can be taken only by consensus and there is so much opposition to these problematic proposals. Mr. Kramer was disarmingly honest in his response. He agreed that there was not that much real danger of anything happening at the WCIT itself. But, he said, this is a long-haul thing. What is at stake are the principles that will guide Internet regulation/governance in the long run. And in this regard, he continued, Dubai was just one of the many forums/meetings/crossroads, and many more are yet to come.

The U.S. and the dominant global Internet companies, which are at the forefront of the anti-ITU campaign, know their game and objectives quite well. It is important that others do so too. This is about the new paradigm of global governance/regulation of the communication realm . Most hype around the WCIT seems to be missing this point, largely because it is to a considerable extent orchestrated and misled by the dominant powers.

The paradigmatic issue here is whether the Internet, as the centrepiece of the new global communication realm, should be regulated at all. Freedom of expression is just one side of the story. The other, rather well disguised side is about the political economy of the global communication realm. It is about the division of resources within the communication realm, and, even more importantly, the larger global and sub-global division of resources — economic, social, and political — which is fundamentally impacted by the nature of regimes that govern the global communication realm.

Closely regulated

The communication realm — or more descriptively, the information and communication realm, and its technologies — has always been closely regulated in public interest. It is generally understood that it is of vital and extraordinary public interest, and cannot just be subject only to normal commercial regulation, that for instance governs trade in white goods. Every telephone company is obliged to carry the traffic from every other company in a non-discriminatory manner, which is called the common carriage rule. One can well imagine what it would be like if this rule is not enforced. Long back, there was a time when there was no such rule. The telephony revolution was made possible because regulators forced common carriage regulation on big companies in the U.S. and other places. Similarly, the IT revolution began when regulators in the U.S. forced software to be unbundled from hardware, whereby an independent software industry could develop. The rest is history.

There are universal service obligations in the telecom sector whereby every telecom provider must service every person/ household, etc., whether it serves its business model or not. And then there are regulations on tariffs, quality of service and so on. Telecom providers are forced to comply with disability friendly features, and they also contribute to Universal Service Funds that are used to universalise communication services. All of this, and much more, will disappear in an unregulated communication system. In taking a collective political decision on whether the Internet is at all to be regulated or not, we need to understand that we are taking decisions on all these issues, and not just on freedom of expression.

In order to understand the real stakes in the ‘regulation or not’ debate regarding the Internet, it is best to look at what is happening in the U.S. right now. The U.S. telecom market is dominated by two players, Verizon and AT&T. Verizon has challenged the Federal Communication Commission’s authority to enforce net neutrality (the Internet equivalent of the ‘common carriage’ rule), arguing that the Internet is not telecom and thus outside the FCC’s mandate. AT&T went a step further. It claimed that since even traditional telecom services, like telephony, increasingly work on Internet Protocols (IP), the FCC’s remit should not cover even telephony. In essence, more or less, the claim is that no regulation of the communication systems is needed at all. The FCC can close down! Markets have taken over, and are their own arbitrators!

California recently became the latest of many States in the U.S., mostly Republican-ruled, which have deregulated Voice-over-Internet-Protocol, effectively removing regulatory control over telephony service, disregarding the concerns expressed by many public interest groups. There are many deep implications of such changeovers. To give just one illustration, unlike traditional telephony systems that are obliged to have their own power-supply to account for emergency situations, the new IP based systems do not have such obligations. When most ‘new systems’ failed recently in the aftermath of Storm Sandy, unlike earlier times, the FCC found itself unable to question the disaster preparedness of the companies providing much of the communication infrastructure in the U.S. today.

What is happening at the ITU today, in good measure, is this game of freeing our communication realm from all public interest regulation. As mentioned, it is about a new paradigm of ‘complete non-regulation.’ And once the victory is achieved at the ITU, whereby the Internet and other IP networks, which would soon be the basis of all communication infrastructure, are considered out of any kind of regulatory oversight, the game will then be replayed at the national level, citing ‘global norms.’ In fact, during an on-the-side chat at a recent Internet governance meeting in New Delhi, a telecom company representative made a significant give-away remark. He said to an official of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), ‘but isn’t net neutrality about the Internet, and therefore TRAI should have nothing to do about it.’

In presenting a view on whether or not the Internet should be subject to the remit of the ITU and the ITRs, India may be taking a position on whether it seeks to free the Internet from all regulatory control, which logic would then perforce also extend to TRAI’s remit at home. The least one can say, and appeal to the government and other actors in the space, is that this should be a considered decision after thoroughly assessing all sides of the story.

Freedom of expression is not the only issue that is involved here. There are so many other issues, involving significant economic, social and cultural considerations, that are at stake with regard to regulation of the Internet. It may not be wise to throw out the baby with the bath water.

(Parminder Jeet Singh is Executive Director of Bangalore based NGO, IT for Change. Email: parminder@itforchange.net)

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