A looming land grab for internet governance by the United Nations' International Telecommunications Union (ITU) could spell a drastic change for governments and internet service providers alike.
The union's plan to revise a 1988 International Telecommunications Regulations (ITR) treaty this December has drawn the ire of civil libertarian groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
But the union's motivations are far from a desire to annex the internet, other observers say, describing it instead as a move to deal with today's "unregulated world of VOIP and online content".
Representatives from 193 nations will meet in Dubai this December to redefine the scope of the ITU's ITR treaty, a set of principles governing global telecommunications interconnects and cost structures.
The treaty currently covers operational, regulatory, economic and legal concerns in telecommunications, including things as banal as the 'accounting principals' behind interconnection fees.
The regulations, primarily aimed at traditional voice networks, were developed well before the advent of Skype, and before VoIP as a technology began eating into the core voice revenue stream telcos traditionally relied upon.
According to iiNet's chief technology officer. John Lindsay, new delivery models have given the "old world" of government-owned telcos an impetus to fight back.
"The ITU would love to make the messy unregulated world of VoIP and online content go away," Lindsay told iTnews.
Carriers in both developed and developing nations have seen voice revenues decline in almost direct proportion to the growth in traffic across the the application layer in recent years, thanks most notably to services like Skype.
The European Telecommunications Network Operators Association (ETNO) last week released its submission urging the ITU to outlaw net neutrality legislation and protect its right to negotiate ‘quality of service’ (guaranteed) and ‘best effort’ (no guarantee) network traffic agreements with content providers.
But if this is the current state of affairs the ITU is trying to ‘fix’ on behalf of telcos, it’s also one the union created, Lindsay said.
"The ITU can be thanked for sky-high global roaming charges, high international voice terminating access prices, and codifying the Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing plan," he said.
"[The multiplexing plan] has lead to the dramatic reduction in the cost of international circuits and helped drive the exponential growth of internet traffic over the last decade since they introduced G.694 in 2002.
"It's ironic that this explosive data traffic growth has driven data prices to the floor and allowed technologies like VoIP to displace traditional voice network operators via services like Skype while simultaneously slashing the costs for competitive voice telcos around the world."
Battle for control
Economics aside, the ITRs pose a much broader implication for the traditionally disparate governance structure underpinning the internet; one that some claim are a danger to the internet itself.
Google's internet evangelist, Vint Cerf, has argued that attempts to update the ITRs are a politically motivated shot at establishing government control over the internet.
Most of the ITU's negotiations to date have been conducted behind closed doors.
According to Cerf, countries including China and Russia have proposed a UN cyber-security code of conduct that would see the internet bodies underpinning the internet – such as domain registrar ICANN – become subject to the whim of UN members with "one vote" each.
But Syracuse University professor Milton Mueller said the code of conduct had nothing to do with the treaty.
"It is not proposed for it, it is a completely separate and unrelated development, now almost two years old," he said.
The "explicitly voluntary" code of conduct would mean little in countries that already heavily censor the internet, Muller said.
"Can Vint or anyone else show that dozens of countries are clamoring to support putting that thing into the ITRs?" he said.
Leaked WCIT documents did show countries debating the suspension of international telecommunications services, yet the same clause existed in the 1998 treaty without causing concern.
Read on to page two for more on the ITU's objectives.
Former Australian Communications Authority deputy chairman, Dr Bob Horton – also one of the architects of the 1988 treaty – outlined a much less conspiratorial set of objectives at the ITU's Asia Pacific regulator's roundtable in March.
He advocated "light regulation" including:
Despite consternation over ITU's role in internet governance, he said there were currently "no contributions on the broad issue".
Instead, leaked documents from 2011 and 2012 appear to reflect the hopes of telcos operating the major global and local networks.
Mueller said the new proposed regulations mostly reflected developing nations' dissatisfaction with the "internet model" of paying for your own connectivity.
"The only people who don't [support user-pays connectivity] are remote countries without a competitive market for international bandwidth," he explained, noting that Australia had advocated a model of shared payments and government-regulated interconnection fees in 1999.
But neither Mueller nor iiNet's Lindsay welcomed the ITU's ambition to expand its regulatory influence to the internet.
"The ITU was the old government-owned telco 'club'," Lindsay said.
"All that's left is the government and a bunch of third-world monopoly telcos whose voice termination fees are a large source of hard currency income for the government."
The Federal Government has voiced support for re-negotiating the treaty this December, but has yet to expand on its preference over specific provisions in the regulations.
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