Who Controls the Internet:

Posted: October 18, 2012 in Uncategorized
world on iphone
Global pressure: the ITU faces                 attacks from tech giants and hostile governments.  Photograph: Paul J Richards/AFP/Getty Images]
The International Telecommunication Union is holding its first global conference for 14 years in Dubai in December. Photograph: Getty Creative Have you ever noticed that wherever you are in the world, every telephone keypad looks the same? Or wondered why satellites don’t crash into each other? Or why you dial 64 to reach New Zealand, but 65 for Singapore? These are some of the mundane but essential logistical achievements of the International Telecommunication Union, a specialist UN agency that dates back to 1865.

Yet as it gears up for its first global conference in 14 years, the ITU has found itself under unprecedented attack. The first assailant is the powerful US technology lobby. Companies, including Google, are claiming that new ITU proposals would mean internet companies paying hefty fees to local telecoms companies, reigniting historic tensions between US internet giants and incumbent telecoms firms across the world.

But that’s not the only battle that will be played out this December when the ITU’s 193 member states gather in Dubai. Russia and China have been explicit in their goal of taking control of the internet away from the US, while developing countries feel the western technology hegemony is limiting their economic opportunities. With the world’s internet population predicted to reach 3.4 billion by 2016, there is everything to play for.

The ITU has not helped its case. Suspected by some critics of encouraging the controversial proposals, comments by the eloquent secretary general Dr Hamadoun Touré seem designed to antagonise the US. He told Vanity Fair earlier this year: “When an invention becomes used by billions across the world, it no longer remains the sole property of one nation, however powerful that nation might be. There should be a mechanism where many countries have an opportunity to have a say.”

The reaction to some of these new proposals, or ITRs, has been a comprehensive, well-organised and well-funded campaign by a cabal ofpowerful American corporates – including Google, Microsoft, Cisco, AT&T and Comcast. Much of the resulting media coverage of the ITU, particularly in the US, has ranged from dismissive to aggressive, labelling the low-profile union obscure and irrelevant and exploiting American animosity for the UN.

Expanding profile

Much of the damning coverage has focused on proposed changes to the wording of several ITRs that appear to attempt to expand ITU’s remit from telecoms to the internet. Given that the organisation began by co-ordinating telegraph communications and expanded to telephones, mobiles and data, it isn’t unreasonable that its members might seek to expand its remit accordingly.

But its members also include 700 private-sector organisations, and one of those, the European Telecommunications Network Operators (ETNO), has caused the most contention among the US tech lobby by pushing for a proposal that would effectively allow telcos to charge companies for delivering their content. “What we want is a pricing model that ensures the revenue of operators and allows content providers to better compete in the market,” ETNO’s chairman Luigi Gambardella told La Repubblica this month. For a player like Google or anybody else delivering media over the net, that could prove very expensive.

Google’s chief internet evangelist Vint Cerf has been one of the big guns rolled out to lobby against the proposed regulations, describing the proposal to return to the “sender pays” principle as regressive. He claims that model had failed in the telephone world, particularly in developing countries where paying telcos high settlement rates had supposedly funded infrastructure, but instead ended up in the pockets of government treasuries or officials. “It’s the absolute antithesis of the internet where the participating parties on the edge of the network pay for access to it,” he said. “Freedom to innovate on the network has been largely a consequence of its economic model and its openness.”

The ad-hoc coalition lobbying against ITU proposals is made up of Google, Microsoft, Cisco, Comcast and AT&T and 10 others, and is chaired by ambassador David Gross, a lawyer, past chair of several delegations to the ITU, and former government international communications policy coordinator. He represented the group when it testified at a congressional hearing in May. “[The sender pays proposal] is asking for trouble because it’s suggesting the model, a model that is clearly working, would need to be revised for no apparent, real reason, other than the economic benefit of a few carriers,” he told Digital Trendsin August. “I will quickly add that my coalition has major carriers, like AT&T and Verizon, and they also think that this is the wrong way to go.”

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