At least 191 countries are gearing up for the next round of talks at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) conference in Guadalajara, Mexico, in the fall. The ITU is a treaty-based organization under the auspices of the United Nations that regulates international telecom services by, for instance, administering international telephone numbers. To date, the ITU has had no jurisdiction over the Internet. But the U.S.’s own telecom regulator, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), may spark a possible cascade of international regulation of the Web, led by the ITU. The timing couldn’t be worse.
The FCC proposed in June to regulate broadband Internet access services using laws written for monopoly phone companies. Despite a four-decade bipartisan and international consensus to insulate computer-oriented communications from phone regulation, the FCC is headed toward classifying these complex 21st century technologies as “telecommunications services.” This could inadvertently trigger ITU and, ultimately, U.N. jurisdiction over parts of the Internet. Unlike at the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. has no veto power at the ITU and may not be able to stop it.
Not many people understand the standards world, including those who are deeply involved in it. There appear to be a dizzying array of standards organizations covering a even more dizzying array or areas; many standards organizations overlap in their domains. The ITU, for instance, overlaps a great deal with the IEEE and the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force). The IEEE mostly deals with the physical details of data transmission in the space of computer networks, standardizing things such as the wireless links you use in your home and how Ethernet works. The IETF standardizes the control systems (control plane) for the Internet at large; for instance, BGP, OSPF, and IS-IS, the protocols that “put road signs on the Internet,” are all three standardized by the IETF. The way IP phones talk to one another is also standardized by the IETF.
There is another type of standards organization, one that doesn’t set technical standards, but rather controls “name spaces.” The IP address space and domain name space are maintained by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, or IANA, and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. Both of these receive funding from the US Government, and this is what world leaders object to. There is a perception that since the US funds the maintenance of the domain name space, the US controls the domain name space.
But US control over the domain and address spaces is rather loose, if you could describe it as control at all. The US places no restrictions on the naming policies within the Internet; people register all sorts of sites all over the place. For instance, “.com,” is supposed to be for companies, and ‘.net” for service providers. Juniper, a router maker, and hence technically a corporation, is registered under the “.net” domain space; Google, technically considered a provider, is registered under the “.com” name space. This isn’t “bad” or “good,” it’s jut the way things are run right now.
Within the Internet today, then, numbers are managed by a generally management oriented set of organizations that are loosely funded by grants, while technical standards are set by a membership organization (companies and individuals pay to maintain membership in the IEEE), and a volunteer organization (the IETF is technically staffed by volunteers, whose way is paid by their employers in order to advance the general state of Internet level standards at large).
But the ITU is a different sort of beast; it is a political organization that does technical standards and manages name spaces. The ITU, in fact, once competed with the IETF with a rival set of protocols (IS-IS, mentioned above, originated in the ITU, not the IETF). This mix of the technical and the political can makes it hard to judge just what an ITU takeover of the Internet would mean. The most obvious effect would be the end of the ICANN and IANA, with their roles being taken on as “working groups” within the ITU. I could see the ITU taking on more of the role the IETF plays, or at least setting up stronger “liaison” efforts that try and influence, or even control, the direction of technical standards, but this is an uncertain outcome.
What is “more certain” is that the ITU would quickly step in and interfere with the content of the Internet, probably in subtle ways. The ITU, as a political organization, generally attempts to equalize the representation of countries within the technical community. Iran gets an equal vote on standards as the US, China gets an equal vote with Taiwan. The UN shows just the sort of problem with this type of organizational structure; Israel is a case in point.
So what sort of damage could the ITU do? It could begin by enforcing a strict set of domain names for each type of web site. For instance, all porn could be relegated to xxx, all “hard news” to some new domain, and all “opinion and blogs” to another domain. While this might seem like a “good thing,” the problem is “hard news” simply doesn’t exist as a category; all news is opinion. So splitting things this way would simply mean some people receive the approval of the ITU for their opinions, while others do not.
The ITU could also place conditions on the ability of a web site to keep their domain name. For instance, they could possibly require a web site to link to opposing viewpoints, or force a web site to meet some form of “fairness test.” Or they might force a web site to insert specific keywords in their metadata to make filtering of content easier.
While I won’t go so far as to say the ITU would be “taking over the Internet,” I would go so far as to say this could easily result in a lot of regulation on the content of the Internet, and maybe even a choking off of first world access and opinion in order to make the Internet more “fair” to third world countries.
Overall, there’s a lot of downside here, and not a lot of upside. The end result would probably some form of “redistribution of clicks,” much like the UN acts as an uber socialist government, redistributing my tax dollars to people they think deserve them more than I do.