What should concern you about the ITU’s internet regulation meeting

Hamadoun Toure, ITU Secretary General
Hamadoun I. Touré Secretary General, ITU speaking at the opening ceremony, WCIT 2012 Dubai, UAE. (image credit: ITU)

Governments from all over the world are meeting in Dubai since 3 December to discuss regulating the internet or, in other words, censoring it. The meeting, called World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) is organized by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which is an arm of the United Nations.

For 12 days representatives of regulators from the ITU member countries will submit their proposals and discuss how best to regulate the internet. The proposal are being submitted as a review of a 1988 document (treaty if you will) called the International Telecommunication Regulations (download it here).

Yes, they are reviewing a document whose purpose was clearly not to regulate the internet. Its purpose was to manage a global telecommunications industry where governments had monopolies on telecommunications. The ITU’s 1988 regulations were about telephone traffic, a business that the governments owned and controlled access to.


Reviewing it makes sense in as far as telephone communications are concerned. But attempting to bring that type of regulation to the internet – one that’s up to governments to decide how – is understandably worrying a lot of people. It has attracted an outcry that dominated news the whole of last week and continues to be topical. Internet governance experts including the father of the internet himself, Google’s Vint Cerf, disagree that coming up with any such regulation should be left to governments and that it should happen behind closed doors.

The meeting is closed out to the rest of the internet’s stakeholders to the extent that organisations like ICANN are not involved and may be rendered irrelevant onwards. ICANN has so far managed some bits of the internet to what we know it to be today; a free and open platform which any individual that has access can express themselves and participate freely to create, communicate, learn and share.

Some of the concern about the ITU (and its member states governing the internet) has been that this may result in; countries blocking access to the internet or parts of it for their own ends, users that create content anonymously on the internet being prevented from doing so, special levies/taxes being charged on creating content to the extent it creates a barrier for entrepreneurs or individuals that want to do so, restrictions being put in place on who can create content on the internet, governments deciding who, how and when an individual or company gets a domain name.

For its part the ITU says to not worry about it at all. According to Hamadoun Toure, secretary-general of the organisation, this is more about ensuring widespread public usefulness and availability: “The brutal truth is that the internet remains largely [the] rich world’s privilege, ITU wants to change that.” He’s reported to have said ahead of the meeting.

Google, in the meanwhile is rallying support against the ITU’s meeting, accusing the ITU of working with governments to increase censorship and regulate the Internet. It has created an online petition that has so far been signed by more than 3 million ‘signatures’.

What do you think about these developments? Do you think people should be worried about the ITU’s involvement?

Even though the ITU meeting is happening behind closed doors, a Wikileaks type website created earlier in the year to “bring transparency to the ITU” is publishing WCIT-12 proposals by various countries to its website, wcitleaks.org

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