Look past the panic over December's World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT); it's unlikely to be a catastrophe for several practical reasons: (1) the negotiation lasts ten days, so there is not enough time for 193 countries to agree on how to phrase catastrophe (2) large multilateral events tend to converge, like so many voters, on the centre, and (3) the putative chairman of the event is a seasoned grown-up, and will not allow the treaty to break the global information grid. So we can, from now, put hyperbole aside. It creates tension and encourages animosity, and we need none of that in Dubai.
What You Need to Know
Some members of the Internet Community have been hard at work shaping the outcome of the WCIT. They are in the details of the text, the shalls, shoulds, wills and mays; this work is indispensable, and at the end of the negotiation we will owe them the greater share of thanks. What the causal participant can usefully do now, however, is propagate a few key messages through his or her national decision-making apparatus.
The High Notes
On ICANN. ICANN continues to change in positive ways, and now looks and operates even more like a UN. It has been reorganised better to look after the needs of all stakeholders, put a new accent on the requirements of governments, and supported the lot by the creation of new top-level positions charged with Stakeholder Engagement and Government Affairs. Give ICANN a chance to get better before we leap into the unknown by letting the UN diplomatic corps govern the technical underpinnings of the world wide web.
On Cybersecurity. Of paramount importance, and under discussion throughout the world in many forums, but be sure that your WCIT delegation is mandated to make binding commitments on behalf of your nation's security services if you are going to insert issues of that nature into the ITRs.
On the New China / India / South Africa Roundtable. This important group, launched in mid-September 2012, brings together countries that seem to share a view on Internet governance. It should be given a chance to articulate its positions and invite involvement from other stakeholders before the UN or ITU take any decision on Internet governance matters. Let's be fair to everybody — especially our partners in China, India, and South Africa — and not jump the gun at WCIT.
On New Ways to Charge for Telecommunications. Some countries have proposed that Internet content providers (and, presumably, Internet users) should pay for the information that travels across networks. It will be important to understand whether such an arrangement would restrict consumers' access to content that enriches the Internet, or if it would place a cost on web-based businesses. For now, perhaps a better conversation is one that seeks competitive ways to increase the build-out of a telecommunication backbone worldwide.
Catch-All Position on Issues You Don't Know Enough About. It's imprudent to place the UN in charge of most communications technology challenges. Doing so could discriminate against governments that lack the resources to attend meetings in New York or Geneva. For other governments, a New York- or Geneva-based dialogue means simply watching policy development from the side lines, since their representation in those places does not include ICT experts. If your government really wants to develop local solutions to key issues, direct them to regional organizations — the African Union, Mercosur, APEC, local operator groups or Internet Governance Forums — these are the vehicles to ensure solutions that are relevant to the region, and which keep the dialogue rich, focussed, and not just in English.
By Gregory Francis, Managing Director at Access Partnership
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Minds + Machines