One of the reasons we opposed the ill-considered efforts by ETNO and others to impose sending-party-network-pays charging on Internet traffic was the danger of balkanization: differential access to the Internet from different countries or splinternet. We beat back that effort in a temporary alliance with the US State Department, but little did we know that another part of the US government was actively destroying the basis of the Internet. It will cause massive negative economic effects to US tech companies, as described well in a Wired article. Zuckerberg is referring to a movement to balkanize the Internet—a long-standing effort that would potentially destroy the web itself. The basic notion is that the personal data of a nation’s citizens should be stored on servers within its borders.
The title of an article in The Diplomat is “Has Snowden killed Internet freedom?” Whatever one thinks of Mr. Snowden’s actions or motives, one of his most lasting legacies in ousting these programs is likely to be severely setting back the cause of Internet freedom in the international community. Although the U.S.
I spent more time than I had on working to fend off bad proposals to impose the sending party network pays principle on data as part of the revision of the International Telecom Regulations of the ITU. We succeeded, but I did not really think there were any winners in Dubai, really. Now that some time has passed, it is time for considered reflection. I spoke on this subject in Brussels in March, but the lecture that I gave in Bangalore to the Ford Foundation funded training course was perhaps the first time I tried to develop a full analysis. The work is not complete yet, but hopefully, I will get it into good form as a paper within a few months.
Few days back I was asked to speak on the above subject at a workshop held at the Center for European Political Studies in Brussels. I discussed what effects the continuing efforts by ETNO and likeminded groups to introduce some form of government mandated rent extraction from Over the Top players such as Google and Facebook are likely to have on small alternative media using the Internet as a workaround or simply as a low-entry-cost publishing opportunity. The slideset that I used is Samarajiva_CEPS_Mar13.
We just beat back a misguided attempt to break the Internet on the basis of some retrograde conception that equated the Internet with circuit switched telephony. But there is no debate that the Internet is under strain. We’ve been working with UN ESCAP, among others to address some of the problems. But the more fundamental questions of moving massive amounts of data from multiple devices are being addressed in the universities that begat the Internet. These are the solutions, not ETNO’s proposals, now seeping into European policy, to tax OTT players.
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.
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.
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.
The most important work will get done in the early hours of the last night, as was the case in Melbourne. Lots of countries are lining up to speak on Article 6, the one that has been our focus. Also unresolved are some important economic issues. Perhaps the most potentially game-changing aspect here involves language that would replace the end-to-end principle (where network operators agree to carry all traffic from its origin to destination without discrimination) with a “sender-pays” system. (You may remember similar issues coming up in the United States during the net neutrality debates.
I keep being asked by journalists why well-meaning people like ITU Secretary General Hamadoun Toure are supporting the “access charge” proposals, that are warmed over ETNO rejects. I really do not know. I can only speculate. It may be that he has spent too much time in the rarefied climes of Geneva talking to CEOs of European telecom operators and participating in their “Twitter Storms,” and not enough looking at research on what is actually driving Internet use among the poor in his continent and mine. My colleague Alison Gillwald heads RIA which conducts such research.
For more than a year, we have been writing about the possibility of a Putin Putsch at the ITU, that there was no effective counter narrative, and that gullible characters like Sarkozy were being sucked into these plans. Now journalists are making reference to the events that we blogged about: The Russian move comes shortly after Moscow’s new domestic legislation that will allow it to block content deemed “extremist” and a year after President Vladimir Putin told ITU secretary-general Hamadoun Touré, “Russia was keen on pursuing the idea of establishing international control over the Internet, using monitoring and supervisory capabilities of the ITU.” ITU Secretary General Toure has been denying he wants to take over the Internet. But it appears that there are others who want to give the Internet to the ITU. The December 3-14 World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai, could collapse if Russia does not back off from its proposal to bring the Internet under the control of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), thereby subjecting the web to inter-governmental regulation.