The Gathering Storm: WCIT and the Global Regulation of the Internet

Richard Bennett November 21, 2012
November 21, 2012
The ITU is facing obsolescence but this existential crisis does not justify a wholesale restructuring of Internet governance.

At the upcoming International Telecommunication Union (ITU) World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai, to be held from December 3-14, delegates will consider proposals to amend the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs,) binding rules that govern telecommunications network practices around the world. While ITRs are currently limited to the telephone network, several WCIT proposals would expand their scope, making them apply broadly across the entire Internet ecosystem. The ITRs were last amended in 1988, before the Internet was a public system and before many of the most important telecommunications systems and networks we use today were even invented. ITRs have not historically applied to the Internet, which has developed its own international governance institutions, so it’s peculiar that some nations want to extend them so radically at this stage.

In the new world of mobile networks and the Internet, the commercial sector is the network operator and each nation makes its own regulations governing networks. Shifting control of regulatory policy to a global body of regulators pressed by nations with parochial and often mercantilist Interests is not an improvement.

If any change needs to be made at all in the ITRs with respect to the Internet, it should be limited to creating a firewall between the authority of ITU and the operation of the Internet. The Internet’s organic governance system has proved to be quite effective, in no small part due to its close proximity to the Internet’s technical standards and business practices. Technologies that enable rapid rates of change need the ability to adapt to changing conditions quickly; an international treaty organization that convenes once every fifteen years does not fit the bill. The ITU is facing obsolescence as we begin to retire the telephone networks that have been its sole focus since the phase-out of the telegraph, but this existential crisis does not justify a wholesale restructuring of Internet governance.