Should the Internet be treated like traditional phone services when it comes to regulation and pricing? That is the contentious question as the International Telecommunications Union, a United Nations agency with roots dating back to 1865 and the interconnection of telegraph services, meets in Dubai next week for the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). The WCIT is a treaty-writing event that has attracted growing attention given fears that the ITU and countries such as Russia plan to use it to press for greater control over the Internet.
My weekly technology column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that there are certainly legitimate reasons for WCIT suspicion since the ITU lacks transparency and largely excludes public participation. For months, the ITU proposals scheduled for debate (known as International Telecommunications Regulations or ITRs) were shrouded in secrecy and the organization itself offered only limited opportunity for public participation. Moreover, some countries view the WCIT as an opportunity to increase their leverage over the Internet by proposing regulations that would increase governmental controls.
While these issues are cause for concern, proposals aimed at seizing control of Internet governance are unlikely to succeed and the reality is that governments already flex their regulatory muscles within the current U.S.-backed Internet governance framework.
The focus on a UN takeover of the Internet has obscured the real concern with the WCIT, namely efforts by telecom companies to find new sources of revenue by changing the way we pay for the Internet.