It’s not often that a single treaty conference crystalizes the hopes and efforts of a generation of policy-makers. But that is exactly the kind of suspense building up to the World Conference on International Telecommunications.
The “WCIT,” as it is called, will be held December 3-14, 2012 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The stated purpose of the conference is to rewrite the terms of the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs), a treaty that governs how telecommunications traffic is delivered among the countries of the world. Yet what may really be at stake is how the world will continue to pursue the global quest to bring the Internet to all of its 7 billion people.
When the ITRs were last overhauled in 1988, mobile services were in their infancy and the Internet was little more than a geek’s pipe-dream. Yet, in the intervening years since then, the international telecommunications world has been rocked and revolutionized. Beginning first with transatlantic growth, the Internet has exploded and flourished all over the world, bringing direct benefits to citizens, consumers and societies. The countries of the transatlantic world have been at the forefront of this rapid evolution, but it is a truly global phenomenon.
Did the ITRs have anything to do with this? Well, one could argue that once the World Wide Web made its début, the resulting ease of use, rapidly expanding access to the Internet, technological innovation and customer-driven services and applications were inevitable. That is easy to say – in hindsight. The truth is that the ITRs were instrumental because of what they didn’t do. They did not impose detailed regulatory prescriptions. Rather, they set high-level expectations, then allowed for regulatory and commercial flexibility. In other words, the ITRs were successful because they fit the liberalizing ethos of their day.
That could be about to change, however, with the WCIT. Flagged by the ITU as needing updates, the ITRs are attracting a host of proposals from governments that view the treaty as an omnibus vehicle to address every policy grievance they have accumulated during the past quarter-century of telecom liberalization. Fraud, cyber-crime, loss of tax revenues from voice calling, loss of control over undesirable content – you name it, the soon-to-be rewritten ITRs are supposed to resolve it. Yet, there has been little consideration given in many countries to what unforeseen consequences might be wrought if they succeed, or whether the high-level ITRs can accommodate this freight without breaking down completely.
Some of the problematic proposals have sought to tap into what some operators and governments clearly see as an un-mined vein of gold: content generation. Either through a sending-party-pays termination mechanism, or through “quality-of-service” pricing schemes, website operators would be charged to have their content downloaded across national borders. Until recently, little thought was given to the dampening effect that this fee system might have on content generation – particularly for content designed for or within developing countries.
Ironically, the governments of many of these developing countries themselves appear increasingly drawn to such transfer pricing schemes, even though it should be clear that their citizens need greater access to more content – not policies that hinder content production and tax information distribution. Other proposals being presented for the WCIT include mandates to identify the originating point of all traffic and to allow government tracking of traffic routing. These would inevitably disrupt the current commercial practices of least-cost routing, leading to more inefficiency, bureaucratic rent-taking and even potential censorship and blocking of data and video content.
Luckily, the open, commercially rational, diverse and free international telecommunications environment that has evolved since 1988 has its champions. Governments in North America, Europe, Latin America and Asia continue to see the benefits of the current Information Society, and they will be ready to stand up for it in Dubai. Together, these governments have a positive story to tell, based on their own experience. They know that liberalized markets, public-private partnerships, local content-generation, international cooperation, and competitive, commercially negotiated traffic arrangements are all doing a better job now of growing the Internet than could possibly be achieved by attempts to hijack the nine-page ITRs and convert them into a prescriptive regulatory code for the world.
Moreover, contrary to popular belief, the fastest Internet growth is already occurring outside the developed world, rapidly converting the Internet into a global phenomenon, a true network of networks with no center or “headquarters” – and effectively beyond the control of any single government or organization. This is something to be encouraged – not feared.
Transatlantic leadership, working together and with like-minded governments around the world, will be able to continue downloading our global future, based on the diverse, de-centralized and multi-stakeholder model that has evolved to support international telecommunications and the Internet over the past 25 years. This is an inclusive model, which developing nations can embrace (and already are, in many cases). As broadband networks, Internet services and local content take shape in all countries around the world, the countries of North America and Europe can take pride that, although the Internet may have begun as a transatlantic phenomenon two decades ago, its true globalization – already progressing rapidly – will be an everlasting legacy to future generations.