Australia backs UN telco treaty changes

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Australia backs UN telco treaty changes

Global governments consider internet regulation.

The Federal Government has issued public support for a contentious plan to revise the international treaty underpinning global telecommunications regulation.

The International Telecommunications Regulations (ITR) treaty, governed by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and last revised in 1988, will introduce provisions specific to potential regulation of the internet for the first time in a revision expected to be voted on in December this year.

The revisions would require global governments acceding to the treaty to undertake the proposals.

Though no documents relating to the proposals have been officially released by the ITU, claims of closed-door negotiations between countries on the revised treaty have led to a concerted effort by the US chapter of the Internet Society, along with founder and ordained "father of the internet" Vint Cerf, to rally against the treaty.

They claimed the revised treaty would allow the United Nations, which oversees the ITU, and individual governments to more carefully regulate the internet.

A spokesman for the Department of Broadband told iTnews this week that the Federal Government "supports updating the [regulations]".

"In doing so, the Government aims to ensure that the revisions do not undermine the useful purpose the ITRs have had since their adoption," they said.

The composition of Australia's delegation to the conference – to be held in Dubai in December – is yet to be determined. However, it is believed any local delegation is likely to be led by key Department of Broadband personnel.

Internet control?

Concerns around the treaty have grown in recent months, particularly as the ITU working group charged with drafting the proposed regulations prepares to finalise a revised treaty in Geneva at the end of the month.

But ITU secretary-general, Dr Hamadoun Touré, blasted claims over attempts to control internet governance as "frankly ridiculous" in a speech to agency staff this week.

"We are not going to send in the blue helmets of the UN peacekeepers to police IxPs! And we are certainly not ready to make a grab for global domination," he said.

"I always compare this to roads, and cars and trucks. It is not because you own the roads that you own the traffic. And you may not be able to make the traffic flow smoothly. You need to know the height, and weight and breadth and be involved in designing some of the features so the bridges don't collapse ... we need to find a way to have a meaningful debate about this, without one taking over the other.

"So the real issue on the table here is not at all about who 'runs' the Internet ... the issue instead is on how best to cooperate to ensure the free flow of information, the continued development of broadband, continued investment, and continuing innovation."

Documents leaked from the working group (pdf) claimed the new regulations would aim to support a "new IP interconnection ecosystem", including measures dictating global governments to closely negotiate terms on facilities and quality of service mechanisms.

Key provisions are also being negotiated between countries on revisions to portions of the treaty that dictate financial settlement on termination of internet traffic between countries, a measure APNIC chief scientist Geoff Huston said was "unenforceable" if based on existing telecommunications provisions.

Political drive

Touré said the ITU was not a "politically oriented organisation" and that a decision to re-negotiate terms was driven by its membership, rather than the secretariat.

However, sources close to stakeholders claimed the renegotiations were highly politically charged and focused around a desire by some – particularly those in Asia and some in Europe – to wrest control over internet systems away from the US and minimise the potential effect US-based legislation such as SOPA and PIPA could have on worldwide networks.

Though the ITU has continued to enshrine access to the internet as a basic human right, some have claimed the revised treaty could lead to the restructuring of ICANN – the global domain name registration body – away from US control, and cement government-level regulation and control over the internet.

Specifically, leaked documents show countries debating over a treaty proposal that would allow member states to "suspend the international telecommunication service" in that country at their will, provided it notifies other members.

Cerf, chief internet evangelist at Google, said a successful renegotiation of the treaty would create "significant barriers to civil society participation", allowing governments to more easily regulate access to the internet at a country level.

"Such proposals raise the prospect of policies that enable government controls but greatly diminish the 'permissionless innovation' that underlies extraordinary Internet-based economic growth to say nothing of trampling human rights," he said.

In Australia, some have suggested the treaty could more easily allow the Federal Government to implement data retention and internet filtering mechanisms.

Net fundamentals

Major equipment vendors are also thought to oppose the treaty but none besides Google, through Cerf, have come out against it.

A source told iTnews that organisations opposed the treaty "on the basis that they'll leave things in or allow governments to do things that will threaten the fundamental, underlying design of the internet".

APNIC's Huston argued that the treaty would not necessarily change plans for greater regulation that weren't already planned by governments, but warned the polarity of the debate surrounding the treaty could lead to future issues for interconnection between countries.

"Almost everything we do, we never quite get it right all over the world; we always seem to stuff it up," Huston said.

"Weirdly, almost by accident, the internet got it right – one technology across the world, coherent. The concern that I have is that we have just a disparity of opinion when the ITRs come up that we end fragmenting ourselves ... we end up with less than one internet; we end up with many private networks, national networks and we're back to a far worse world.

"It's not that the ITRs will destroy the internet in terms of regulatory impost ... [the US] aren't going to sign anything too repressive, [but] on the other hand other governments might want a different world. If that's the case, the world's networks will break apart."

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