Internet Society: Do not let telecoms grab internet


“Father of the Internet” Vinton Cerf recently warned that International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) will try to subsume Internet regulation. The senior manager of public policy at the NGO, the Internet Society, Sally Shipman Wentworth tells EURACTIV why the upcoming World Conference on International Telecommunications is important, and what is at stake.

Sally Shipman Wentworth is responsible for liaising with governments and decision makers on policy issues regarding online access. From 2007-2009, Wentworth was an assistant director for telecommunications and information policy at the White House. She was previously the principal internet policy advisor at the U.S. Department of State, where she organised US negotiations for several United Nations treaty conferences.

Wentworh spoke from the US with EURACTIV’s Jeremy Fleming

What will the World Conference on International Telecommunications do?

The World Conference on International Telecommunications – or WCIT – is a treaty conference to revise and update a 1988 treaty, the International Telecommunications Regulations. This treaty helps to make sure that telecommunications traffic is delivered efficiently around the world. In essence, the ITRs established the global regulatory framework for international telecommunications. A conference in Dubai in December will seek to revise the ITRs.

Why should we care about this treaty and this treaty conference?

This treaty conference is important because some countries want to include aspects of the internet – technical, security, content-related topics – into this telecommunications treaty. They would like to treat the internet as a telecommunications service. Clearly, the internet is different and we do not think that the old telecommunications regulatory model can or should be applied to the internet. 

Why, how would it impact the internet?

Let’s think about this for a moment: in 2010, the internet economy accounted for about €1.8 trillion of gross domestic product in the world's most developed countries, according to the Boston Consulting Group – an amount roughly equal to the GDP of the United Kingdom.

The things that have made the internet such a great platform for economic growth have come about precisely because of lightweight, decentralised regulation – not because of a static international intergovernmental treaty. So, the question is whether we are going to change the international regulatory trajectory for the internet – and some of the proposals to the WCIT would do just that.

They would essentially take the old telecommunications business and regulatory model and apply it to the internet. The result could be fragmentation of the global internet, higher prices for end users, more centralised control by governments, and, in the end, less innovation overall. Static regulation could threaten the growth of the internet, the internet economy and internet innovation.

Is there anything that should be in the ITRs?

Some have said that the ITRs paved the way for the current boom in global communications. On a sophisticated level, there is some truth to that.  So perhaps it’s worth taking a step back and focusing on the things that have worked in the international telecommunications policy to help more people connect to the global communications networks.

Clearly the world is different now: in 1988, telecommunications was characterised by limited choices for consumers, high prices, and government monopolies. Today we see vibrant competition, deregulation, market liberalisation and independent and transparent regulations – the result has been tremendous innovation and lower prices for telecommunications consumers.

However, the 1988 ITRs made no mention of such things as competition, transparency, or deregulation. It seems to us therefore, that is a good place for the discussion to start in terms of updating the ITRs to reflect the current international telecommunications framework.

What can you do to try and influence the treaty negotiation?

One of the challenges of this process is that it is relatively closed – only ITU member states and corporate sector members get to see the proposals. Only governments ultimately get to negotiate. If you want to be involved, the first thing to do is to call on your government to offer an open and participatory national process to prepare for this treaty negotiation. 

The Internet Society is also a place to find out more information about the WCIT and to learn about the implications of some of the proposals.  We also have a tremendous amount of informational materials about different aspects of the internet:  IP Addressing, interconnection, standards, etc. We hope that more people will become engaged in this process – it is critical for the future growth of global communications and interoperability.

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