This week, more than 190 countries convened in Dubai for a UN conference that may well reshape the contours of our information society. At the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) organised by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), governments will vote to update the terms of the international telecommunications regulations (ITRs) treaty, which set out the principles intended to direct the flow of information the world over. The ITRs have not been updated since 1988, well before the emergence of the commercial internet. The lead-up to the summit has been rife with speculation, aided by leaked documents from the WCIT, that some countries, including Russia and China, are trying to mount a UN-led takeover of the internet.
Though fears that the UN is plotting an internet coup are probably exaggerated, some are afraid that the negotiations could become an occasion for governments, authoritarian and otherwise, to wrest more decision-making powers on internet surveillance, censorship and data retention norms. The proposals are also perceived to have been crafted behind closed doors, with the private sector and civil society excluded from voting. It is easy to see why internet freedom advocates might be concerned. On the table are proposals to monitor and filter spam; to block computers that “harm” technical facilities or personnel; to have “transit centres” that could shut off traffic to particular places; and to update international user data retention laws. If approved, these could all potentially throttle internet freedom. Still, the ITU operates on a consensus-driven approach, and given the US government’s oft-stated opposition, these proposals are unlikely to be accepted.
The revised ITRs could, however, still create new barriers to access. Several telecom companies, particularly the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association (ETNO), see the WCIT as an opportunity to open up a revenue stream, given that new technologies are eroding the value of voice calls. The key question is, should the internet be treated like regular phone services when it comes to regulation and pricing? The ETNO wants to eliminate net neutrality — the idea that all operators give equal priority to all forms of data — and introduce a “sender pay” model, which would require the originator of the content to pay for data transmission, creating enormous costs for content providers like Google. It could lead to companies offloading this extra cost to consumers, or to a new digital divide where large content providers will stop sending data to countries where the returns from sending traffic are small compared to the costs of transmission.