Failure in Dubai: WCIT falls apart

After over a year’s worth of preparation on the part of nearly every country on earth, today the WCIT conference fell apart, with the U.S., Canada, UK, and other countries refusing to sign the new International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs).  They all had good reason to not sign.

Never fear!  The Internet is still here and open for business.  Treaties have failed before and yet the world goes on.

This treaty-

  • put into play regulation of Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and would have required governments to impose international obligations on them.
  • attempted to add claims about human rights,
  • challenged the role of the U.N. security council, and whether U.N. sanctions could apply to telecommunications.
  • went headlong into cybersecurity and spam, without any real basis or understanding for what it would mean to do so.
  • worst of all ran headlong into Internet governance, challenging the flexible approach that has grown the network from nothing to 2.5 billion people.

This was never going to be an easy conference.  It has been clear for many years that the developing world has very different views from the developed world, and the views of Russia, China, and Iran are quite different from those of the U.S., Canada, and Europe.  In the end, the gulf between these worlds was too great.

I extend my sincere thanks to those who spent many tireless hours in Dubai in defense of the Internet.  A partial list includes Markus Kummer, Sally Wentworth, Karen Mulberry, and Leslie Daigle of the Internet Society; Chip Sharp, KY Hong, Hosein Badran, and Robert Pepper of Cisco Systems; Adam Gosling of APNIC; Patrik Fältström of NetNod; Phil Rushton of BT; Mike Blanche, Sarah Falvey,and Aparna Sridhar of Google; Tom Walsh of Juniper; Anders Jonsson of the Swedish Administration; Dr. Richard Beaird, James Ennis, Vernita Harris, Ashley Heineman, Joanne Wilson, Franz Zichy, and many others from the American Administration; and Dr. Bruce Gracie, Avellaneda, and Martin Proulx from the Canadian administration.

These people spent many weeks away from their families, both in Dubai and in preparation.  This was not the result they were hoping for.

A special thanks to Vint Cerf, who travels the earth to keep the Internet bringing communications to all.

What’s WCIT about? It depends on who you ask.

This week the World Conference on International Telecommunication (WCIT) began with a remarkable and important declaration from the Secretary General, Dr. Hamadoun Touré:

And WCIT is not about Internet governance.  WCIT is about making sure that we connect the billion people without access to mobile telephony, and that we connect the 4.5 billion people who are still off line.

Let’s first take a moment to celebrate the fact that 2.5 billion people have access to the Internet, and that the rate of Internet penetration has grown at a rate of 14% over the last few years to 35%, according to the ITU’s own numbers.  That’s great news, and it leads to a question: how shall WCIT focus on improving on that number?   How have the International Telecommunication Regulations that have served 2.5 billion people not served the other 4.5 billion?

Unfortunately, none of the proposals that have been made available actually focus on this very problem.  Instead, at least one prominent proposal from Russia focuses on… Internet governance.  Let’s wish the Secretary General great success in persuading Russia and other governments that indeed that is not what this conference is about.

Access to WCIT available to ALL

As I wrote earlier, WCIT is now taking place in Dubai.  This conference could impact your ability to use the Internet, either by stifling growth due to encoded business models, or by mandating specific standards, rather than allowing creativity to flow.  We have the opportunity to listen to parts of this conference, specifically plenary and whole committee meetings.  After a tremendous amount of pressure, the participants of that conference have allowed open access to the streaming.  You can access the streams at the ITU web site.  To be sure, it’s a fairly technical conference.  If you listen in and have questions, you can join an XMPP chatroom.  If I’m around I will answer your questions.  You can also post them here, although in either case I may not have the answer.

WCIT and the ITU?

Flag of ITU.svg

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is making the news these days, in part because there is about to be a treaty conference called the World Conferences on International Tariffs (WCIT).  What is the ITU? and what do they do?

The ITU is a specialized agency of the United Nations that focuses on telecommunications.  It has four components:

  • A general secretariat;
  • A standardization sector or ITU-T;
  • A radio coordination sector or ITU-R; and
  • A development sector or ITU-D;

The radio sector coordinates spectrum allocation and so-called “orbital satellite slots”.  It also is responsible for standardization of time.  The development sector focuses on the special needs of developing countries.  The standardization sector has over 150 years set international standards for telecommunications, starting with the telegraph.  The general secretariat manages logistics of the three sectors, and represents the ITU to other international fora, and to the U.N.

How has the ITU been relevant to you?  There are several key standards that are worth taking note of:

  • E.164 specifies pretty much what a telephone number looks like, starting with the international dialing code.
  • G.711, G.719 and others specify how voice is encoded into data.
  • X.509 is the basis for the public key infrastructure that is in use on the World Wide Web.
  • D.50 specifies accounting standards by which international carriers bill each other, or so-called settlement rates.  There’s real money involved in this one.

This is some pretty important stuff.

The ITU-T was formed out of the CCITT, which was a coordination committee, primarily made of European governments.  These days, its membership spans 193 countries. Only governments may vote, although civil society and paying sector members may have some influence.

So what is WCIT?  WCIT is a treaty-level conference in which all those lovely accounting rates are agreed upon.  But they’re not stopping there.  The ITU-T has had a very limited role in the Internet’s development.  Standardization and governance over the Internet falls to several classes of entities:

  • National governments with their own sets of laws;
  • Standards organizations such as the IEEE, IETF, W3C, and 3GPP; and
  • Not-for-profit organizations such as ICANN and Internet Registries.

This latter group focuses on what I call “internals”.  That is- how do you get an IP address or a domain name?  The Internet has grown over 1.25 billion users with very limited involvement of the ITU-T.

Now governments want to take a firmer hand in areas such as how addresses and names are allocated and cybersecurity.  That is what WCIT is about.

More about the ITU and WCIT in the future.