The UN's internet gabfest

Business Spectator 29 November 2012

How do you fix a big problem? Well, one thing you don't do is call the United Nations and then ask that august body to do something that it has never done before.

Yet, this is exactly what appears to be happening when the United Nations' International Telecommunication Union (ITU) meets at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai next week.

The ITU (International Telecommunication Union) is the United Nations specialised agency for information and communication technologies. The ITU allocates global radio spectrum and satellite orbits, develops the technical standards that ensure networks and technologies seamlessly interconnect, and strives to improve access to ICTs to underserved communities worldwide.

However, the ITU does not - and never has - regulated the internet beyond ensuring technologies used can talk to each other. So this should make for a rather facinating event. 

The process

Various countries and international organisations have formed groups that will put forward different wish lists for discussion at the meetings next week. Some of the proposals are jaw droppers that would effectively kill the internet as we know it today.

This meeting has been long planned and Australia, along with the other 192 countries that will be represented at WCIT, will be well prepared to work towards positive outcomes. Australia will be sending the our communications minister senator Stephen Conroy and a considerable slew of aids and members of his department.

WCIT will be an opportunity for international agreement on changes to the management of telecommunications and the internet. Some of the items that appear almost daily in the media and therefore likely to be high on the agenda. They include:

1. International roaming charges - excessive unjustifiable rorting by carriers on a global scale.

2. Technology changes - the list of new technologies and updates to be adopted never diminishes

3. Cyber-crime - huge growing crime problem that is now beyond any individual nation's control.

4. Cyber-warfare - growing daily and ready to explode at a moment’s notice.

5. Cyber-terrorism - how nations will defend themselves from organised digital attacks. 

6. Privacy and security - privacy and security of personal information.

7. Freedom of speech - including political censorship on the net.

8. Individual rights - The rights to be protected from defamation, bullying, harassment, hate crimes

9. Tax minimisation - Should large internet based multi-nationals be permitted to tax minimise and rip-off nations like Australia?

10. ICT price gouging - should large internet based multi-nationals be permitted to price gouge in nations like Australia using techniques such as geolocation?

Is a consensus even possible?  

What is interesting about this list is that each nation that participates in WCIT will have a different perspective on how to solve each problem and countries that can agree on most things are likely to disagree on some points.

Proposals put forward in a discussion paper called "Trends in Telecommunication Reform 2012: Smart Regulation in a Broadband World" have already been met with scepticism and outright denial. For the ITU to be suggesting that it get involved in regulating the internet is a recipe for a bigger disaster than the one we have now.

One thing is for certain; the debate at WCIT will be lively. Nations, multi-national vendors and carriers, and international organisations such as unions will all be singing their own tunes as loudly as possible.

What can we expect from this meeting? First of all there is no consensus on what the problems are with international telecommunications and the internet today, so there is no hope of any substantive solutions being adopted. It is certain that the US will insist that there will be no changes adopted that affect US based companies (and this includes their ability to rip-off Australians) and freedom of speech. China and Russia will argue for regulation that opposes any position put by the US and Europe.

But there is a glimmer of light.

At WCIT there is likely to be consensus about one thing - the need to force international roaming charges down. Even the US is likely, reluctantly, to agree that there is a need to force the carriers to significantly reduce international roaming charges.

Beyond this what happens is anyone’s guess.

Mark Gregory is a Senior Lecturer in Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT University