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Internet Governance 29 June 2012

What In The World Is WCIT??

Sally Shipman Wentworth
By Sally Shipman WentworthVice President of Global Policy Development

Since we’ve just launched the Internet Society’s public policy blog, I thought this would be a good time to do a short summary on the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) – what is the status, why ISOC cares, and what ISOC has been up to lately on this topic.

The World Conference on International Telecommunications, or WCIT, will be held on 03-14 December in Dubai.  This is a treaty conference to renegotiate an old treaty – the International Telecommunications Regulations, or ITRs (Read the ITRs).  The ITR’s haven’t been reopened since 1988 and some countries think it’s time to take another look to see if new issues should be added to the treaty.   Since this is a treaty conference, the results of the December WCIT will be binding on the Member States that sign the Final Acts.

So it counts – it’s important.

Let’s take a look at what the ITRs are and why we care.  As I noted, the ITRs are, first and foremost, an international treaty.  This treaty has been around since the 1800s, first as the International Telegraph Regulations and, most recently in 1988, the International Telecommunications Regulations.  So it has staying power!

In essence, ITRs set out the rules for the exchange of telecommunications traffic across borders with the goal of promoting international interconnection and interoperability.   The treaty is short, only about 15 pages, and deals with things like safety of life, quality of service, charging and accounting and numbering.   Things most of us probably never even think about.

But if we step back and think about the communications era in 1988, the regulations make some sense – they were written at a time when telecommunications operators were very closely linked (even owned by) governments, very little competition existed, and costs for end users were very high.  Think about how much it cost to make an international call in 1988!   In a nutshell, the 1988 ITRs set out the framework by which a relatively small number of government-owned monopolies would move telecommunications traffic around the world and how it would be paid for.

That was then.

Clearly, times have changed since 1988.  The 1990s ushered in a wave of privatization and liberalized and the Internet, this global network of networks that we all depend on, became a major force in communications.  Consequently, countries decided that it was time to change the treaty in order to account for this shifting landscape.   As far back as the late 1990s, some countries began calling for a reopening of the ITRs through an international conference called a WCIT.  Many countries were skeptical that new ITRs were even needed.  This conversation continued for a decade and agreement to hold another WCIT was not reached until 2010.

Fast forward to 2012.

Since 2010, the ITU has, slowly but surely, been getting ready for WCIT 2012 via a working group called the “Council Working Group on ITRs – CWG WCIT12”.  Working largely under the radar screen until 2012, Member States and some non Member States have been making suggestions on how the treaty might be revised.

As the work progressed, it became increasingly evident that several Member States thought that the treaty should be expanded to include the Internet.  Proposals related to numbering (possibly IP addressing?), cybersecurity, SPAM, IP interconnection, quality of service, and standards all raised concerns by many of us that revisions of the treaty could impact the Internet architecture, operations, content, security and global interoperability of the Internet.

So a number of groups, including the Internet Society began to speak up.  In February 2012, ISOC submitted our initial contribution to the WCIT.  In short, ISOC does not believe that the bottom-up, decentralized nature of the Internet lends itself to a static, intergovernmental treaty.  We think that this would have significant implications for global interoperability, for the free flow of information online, for the evolution of networks, and for the security and stability of the Internet.

Though many of us were concerned about the direction of the WCIT process, the ITU restricts the distribution of WCIT proposals and reports – the documents are not public.  As a result, rumors started circulating that the UN was going to “take over the Internet”.    News reports on WCIT began to appear in the popular press.  And yet, very few people could review the proposals and see what their Member States were considering (NOTE: ISOC is a Sector Member of the ITU but we are not allowed to distribute the ITU’s restricted documents).   In April, civil society groups asked the ITU to release the WCIT documents.  And, at the June ITU working group meeting, the ITU Secretary General finally called on the ITU Membership to release the WCIT proposals.

Stay tuned – we’ll see if the ITU Member States agree with the Secretary General!  They’ll decide in early July 2012.

What has ISOC been up to with regards to the WCIT?

The Internet Society is a Sector Member of the ITU and, as a result, has been allowed to participate in the preparatory meetings for the WCIT.   Through our Regional Bureaus, we have also participated in nearly every regional WCIT preparatory meeting.  Finally, the Internet Society is a global community, made up of over 55,000 members and 90 local Chapters around the world plus over 100 Organizational members.  Many of our members are deeply engaged in the Internet governance topics and are working closely with their governments in support of a multistakeholder approach to the Internet.

ISOC has also developed a number of resources for the community to help them become informed about the WCIT.  Our WCIT resources website is a good place to start if you want to learn more about the WCIT and if you would like more info about some of the key issues, take a look at the various resources that you’ll find on our website.

We are also using a fun new tool to catalogue some of the press pieces that have appeared about the WCIT.  You can follow this thread at: http://www.scoop.it/t/wcit.

Finally, JOIN ISOC!  We constantly provide ISOC members with in-depth analysis of the WCIT proposals as well as reports on the various WCIT meetings that ISOC staff has attended.  We are a global, multistakeholder community and we welcome participation!

Sally Shipman Wentworth 

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Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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