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The UNdead are back! ITU remains determined to constrain the free and open Internet

The ITU, an agency of the United Nations, is a venerable telecommunications regulatory body and its executives are all too well aware that the increasingly moribund organisation is of less and less relevance in the age of the Internet. Long gone are the heady (and hugely expensive) days of Telecom 95, Telecom 99 and so on when the ITU was cock of the walk and ruled the global telecoms roost. Times have moved on and in several areas the ITU has been left high and dry as the tide of progress has flowed past its Genevan redoubt.

That is why the subject of the Internet is now at the top of its intensely political agenda. On Wednesday of last week, the ITU's current Secretary General, Hamadoun Toure restated agency's position that, "public policy formulation in all domains, including the Internet, is the sovereign right of member states" and added that that the ITU remains the proper and arena to debate issues on which there is "no clear consensus".

The Secretary General was quoting selectively from the Internet governance section of the 2005 Tunis Agenda of the World Summit on the Information Society and his words came after the ITU failed to get its unanimous or even majority way over the burning issue of the control and regulation of the Internet that so divided the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) held in December last in Dubai.

According to Mr. Toure, "The Internet cannot and does not work without telecommunications infrastructure and that's what WCIT-12 was really all about; creating the right environment for telecommunications infrastructure investment and rollout."

Many disagree with that analysis and position statement and, accordingly, the final Dubai WCIT "treaty" which becomes effective in 2015 does not actually refer to control or management of the Internet but does contain, hidden away in an appendix to the main report, an entirely non-binding proposal and political sop to the effect that all governments should have an equal role and responsibility for international Internet governance, the security and stability of the Internet and its future development.

Some 89 countries signed-up to the ITU's vision of some kind of a sub-Orwellian future for the Internet but many others did not. They include the likes of the US, the UK, Canada, Germany, India and Japan.

Terry Kramer, the head of the US delegation, to WCIT Dubai, said "We cannot support a treaty that is not supportive of the multistakeholder model of Internet governance" while Neelie Kroes, the vice president of the European Commission (EC), and the woman in charge of Digital Agenda says, "The Internet works, it doesn't need to be regulated."

So, the battle lines are drawn and there have been a few tentative skirmishes preceding a likely full-on war between two irreconcilable camps. The US, Britain and the other WCIT 2012 non-signatories maintain that it is, quite literally, none of the business of the ITU to attempt to follow a route of self-aggrandisement by declaring itself to have a major role in the future governance of the Internet.

The fact of the matter is that Internet access in various forms and based on various technologies has spread like wildfire across the face of the planet without the sluggish and dreadfully bureaucratic ITU having played any really meaningful part in the process. And there is no reason why the ITU should play any bigger part now that the Internet wave is unstoppable. Think where the global Internet would be now had ITU had control of the process from the start. Would the Internet be the open, ineroperable system that it is today? No it would not. Repressive governments around the world, frightened of the effects that open access to information would have on their national populations, would have made sure of that.

In early December last the Lower House of the US Congress passed a resolution against the UN (via the ITU) taking over control of the Internet by a unanimous vote of 397 to zero. The same resolution was also unanimously passed in in the Upper House. It stated "...proposals have been put forward for consideration... that would fundamentally alter the governance and operation of the Internet ... and to justify increased government control over the Internet. The policy of the United States is to promote a global Internet free from government control and preserve and advance the successful multi-stakeholder model that governs the Internet today."

And then, just yesterday, the Federal Communications Commission FCC) the powerful US regulator, told the US Congress that the free and open Internet is under overt attack by the ITU and that "it must be stopped".

In testimony before the House subcommittee on international Internet governance, due to be given later today, Commissioner Robert McDowell, will bluntly state that WCIT-12 "ended the era of an international consensus to keep inter-governmental hands off of the Internet, and it ended it in a dramatic fashion. The bottom line is that 89 countries voted to have given the ITU de facto jurisdiction over the Internet’s operations and content."

He added, "In sum, the dramatic encroachments on Internet freedom secured in Dubai will serve as a stepping stone to more international regulation of the Internet in the very near future. We must take action to stop this UN agency from gaining further governance power over the Internet as it intends to do at the ITU's upcoming 2014 plenipotentiary meeting. Inaction on our part is not an option but US opposition alone is not enough. We need a global Internet free of governmental and UN control."

Unsurprisingly there a powerful lobby America is demanding that the US should curtail its expansive funding of the ITU, especially in light of the claim made by the agency at the end of WCIT-12 meeting. In an officially sanctioned press release the ITU triumphantly announced ""New global telecoms treaty agreed in Dubai". It should have added, "Except by those many nations that refused to sign it." That would have been nearer the truth.

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