Advocates of Internet’s freedom have overwhelmingly supported the U.S. government before WCIT 2012 in Dubai. Thereafter one obscure Mr. Snowden has narrowed, if not collapsed, the floodgate of support for America’s doctrine of Internet.
Three months ago the Communication and Information Technology Commission (CITC) of Saudi Arab has vowed to ban all VoIP applications that bypass networks. Now the regulator has lowered its axe on applications like Skype, Viber and WhatsApp. As a result, the oil rich Kingdom’s vast population of foreign workers will have to count huge cost of calling home. The regulator issued a vaguely worded directive in March warning that such tools as Viber, Whatsapp and Skype broke local laws, without specifying how. CITC did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday or when the earlier announcement was made in March.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has asked US carriers not to pay more than US$0.02 per minute to their Pakistani counterparts. This decree has been slapped after Pakistan has raised its international termination rate to $0.88 per minute, which the FCC calls anti-competitive. Pakistan’s 14 Long Distance and International (LDI) operators have formed a single international gateway called International Clearing House (ICH) and raised international termination prices in October 2012.
An advocacy group called “De-fund the ITU” demands the US government stops funding the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). In a signature campaign they have accused ITU of leading several countries to seize the control of the Internet during WCIT 2012 in Dubai. Their goal was a coup: to overthrow the open and transparent system of internet governance that ensures the internet’s freedom and accessibility, and replace it with their own central point of absolute control, through which policies of censorship and repression could be enacted. The group claims that Germany, France, Spain, and Finland have already de-funded the ITU. American technology giants like the IBM, Cingular, Microsoft, Fox, Agilent, Sprint, Harris, Loral, and Xerox have allegedly withdrawn their private-sector contributions from the ITU.
Asia is said to the last redoubt of belief in the Westphalian state. The Internet is fundamentally incompatible with the notion of a national state (legislature, executive and judiciary) having untrammeled authority over all that went on within its boundaries. It is therefore understandable that government officials have trouble dealing with Internet policy. But as stated by this observer of the Indian process, it appears that Indian officials have overcome these handicaps, thanks to vibrant stakeholder engagement: But a subsequent close engagement on their part with the government seems to have borne fruit. The positions that were put forward in Dubai by the Government of India in the end were far more nuanced, effectively taking into account many of the concerns that civil society and industry had put on the table.
The Bangladesh delegation flew to WCIT 2012 without necessary homework. Members had, however, informally said they would “follow the crowd” in the conference at Dubai. And they kept their word while voting in favor of the new ITR. After coming home, the team leader is triumphant: Least developed countries like Bangladesh will be benefitted from the recent amendment to international telecom regulations, said an official. Subscribers in Bangladesh will enjoy reduced international roaming charges, better internet security, freedom from junk mails, and wider access to international communication.
Many countries left the final decision on the ITRs to officials. In some case like Kenya, the officials applied their minds. In too many developing countries, it was a knee-jerk response based on maximizing national control and/or loyalty to the ITU. India is different. “ITU should only focus on telecom sector and not get into information and communication technology as they have tried to do through the Dubai convention last week,” said Subho Ray President of Internet and Mobile Association of India.
It’s a rare government servant who does not believe that his prime directive is not that of giving all possible power to his government. Refreshing. But Dr Ndemo had indicated he would not support the inclusion of internet in the ITU regulations even before he left the country for the conference. “Why would we want to change anything? This period that ITU has not been regulating internet there have been tremendous innovations.
I trace the failure of Dubai back to the decision to cut corners on the expert group that was to prepare for the conference. A delegate who was a participant-observer reaches a similar conclusion. Consensus-based decisions take time. Principles must be understood, positions presented, compromises made. Throughout the process, enlightenment occurs at various times and in varying ways.
Surprisingly detailed attention has been paid to international roaming by the delegates in Dubai. Even the phenomenon of inadvertently connecting to a foreign network in border areas has been covered. Though of course none of the provisions are mandatory. 38A 4.4 Member States shall foster measures to ensure that authorized operating agencies provide free-of-charge, transparent, up-to-date and accurate information to end users on international telecommunication services, including international roaming prices and the associated relevant conditions, in a timely manner.
In the morning there was a report that the great Asian democracy, India, had not signed the ITRs. Now it looks like it did. Looks like poetic babus played a double game. Kenya’s brave lone stand is extraordinary and can be explained by what it has to lose if the Internet ceases to be seamless, as I explained in an oped in the Business Daily in October. But there are surprises: Qatar and Egypt?
The Internet was born inside US universities and spread out across the world. The same has been true for Google, Facebook and many other currently wildly popular applications. These were the applications that ETNO and its allies unsuccessfully tried to tax, by inserting language in the ITRs. Thankfully, that ended in failure, but as avarice has legs. It will come again.
The photo on the left, an over-the-shoulder picture kindly sent us by an observer sitting in the back rows of WCIT 2012 in Dubai, illustrates. While the heavy-duty wrangling is going on, a delegate from an African country is going through the LIRNEasia website. We have yet to analyze the user data from the WCIT days, but we are indeed pleased to have photographic evidence of the efficacy of our website and the utility of its content. But more than that, our real achievement was on Article 6, where we focused our fire. The final text from the Chairman of WCIT 42A International telecommunication arrangements 42B 6.
Many talk about the collapse of WCIT as a natural phenomenon; something that just happened, rather than something that specific individuals were responsible for. I disagree. This was something that could have been avoided. The process leading up to the Dubai fiasco could have been handled better. ITU likes to claim that the 1988 WATTC in Melbourne which approved the current ITRs was responsible for the efflorescence of telecom connectivity in the past two decades.
When I gave a talk a few months back at RMIT in Melbourne about how we engaged governments with policy-relevant research, a senior person in the audience said that we seemed to be having greater success in getting the government of Bangladesh to pay heed to evidence than they did in Australia. Proving him half right, the Bangladesh Telecom Regulatory Commission has convened a stakeholder meeting to obtain input for the country’s position at WCIT in Dubai. Now if the government actually votes against the ill-thought out proposals by the Arab and African states to impose access charges for Internet content, my Australian colleague will be proven 100% right. A recent report on the subject in Daily Star. Abu Saeed Khan, a senior policy fellow of Colombo-based think tank LIRNEasia, said the Bangladesh government has ignored the ITU’s directive that instructed it to consult the ITR issues with its citizens.
Just a sample: The National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM), which represents the $100-billion IT and BPO industry, has strong views against the Internet governance model of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Numbers and Names (ICANN), but favours self-regulation. Its president Som Mittal says: “NASSCOM does not favour oversight by an existing U.N. organisation like ITU. Internet and infrastructure have to be in the hands of expert organisations with proven experience.