Contributing to international telecommunications standards, not in the IETF but in a more august and imposing body, the ITU-T, part of the United Nations, was quite an experience. Still called CCITT in those days, it was formal and solemn; everybody was part of and sat with their national delegation, countries were aligned in alphabetical order; nobody spoke out of turn, every word was simultaneously translated in the three official languages of the time and we wore suit and tie. Positions were prepared on a national level under Government guidance and at the Study Group or plenary meetings, I would proudly sit with the Canadian delegation. My modest role was feature requirements of the now mostly forgotten packet switching era X.75 and X.121 standards. New standards could get approved and ratified every two years and would be published every four years in a new set of books.
In the meantime American and some European universities were connecting to each other creating the prelude to what would become the global internet, using a best effort protocol lacking real quality of service, let alone carrier grade maintenance tools or call record and billing mechanisms. A commercial future beyond a cluster of elite universities and research labs was considered unlikely, at least in the context of the time. ISDN and B-ISDN were definitely the way forward to achieve convergence in telecommunications for the public at large.
Tales of a distant past or is it possible to wind back the passage of time?
Momentum has been building over the last couple of years in favour of an ITU effort to renegotiate current International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs), set in Melbourne in 1988. As it stands today, article nine specifies that special networks are exempt and, back in the late eighties, the internet clearly fell into that category. No one doubts the obsolescence of this classification and it is understandable that ITU proponents propose to have it changed. The catch however is that ITRs are not just some IETF-like gentle Requests for Comments (RFCs) but Treaty based Rules adopted and ratified between nation states. It does not take a leap of imagination that this could herald the end of the open creative, a bit anarchic, rather libertarian internet most of us have learned to know and love while the young generation grew up with it and considers the internet an alienable right.
After more than a decade of talk and working groups where nations defended positions ranging from simply abolishing to ITRs to make them stronger and more binding than ever, the issue is now rapidly gaining momentum and about to come to a head. A number of nations, including, not surprisingly, the most authoritarian and interventionist ones, seek to put the telecom sector back in its straightjacket. The motivation is rather obvious; control of content, collect taxes, protection of incumbent telecom oligopolies and associated revenue streams and above all safeguarding 'national interests'. The internet and its associated new media services are, in many quarters, perceived to be conduits and vents prone to exacerbate and amplify latent restlessness in the citizenry, occasionally leading to destabilizing eruptions of mass hysteria.
Why this growing sense of urgency? The long anticipated convergence of telecommunications services is finally happening, not on B-ISDN as envisioned a quarter of a century ago, but on IP. In addition, a new addressing scheme called IPv6 will provide a quasi unlimited supply of IP addresses leading to innumerable connected humans and devices. Some major telecommunications carrier business models and revenue streams are at serious business risk while over the counter providers are seen as getting a free ride and reaping the profits. Miscreants roam the net, viruses and spam are prevalent. Cyber espionage is rampant and identity theft stories abound, protection of critical infrastructure in an internet of things is considered problematic at best; there are stories of hacked cars, cameras, even pacemakers. Law enforcement agencies such as FBI and RCMP lament publicly that lawful interception is becoming more difficult…
Considering these facts, real or perceived, the world's internet practitioners would gain from being more proactive in addressing some of the most legitimate concerns regarding reliability and security, if we don't want, in a near future, to have International Treaties govern the internet. Nothing new really, 150 years ago the Victorian internet, connected to Napoleon III's internet and Bismarck's internet, was also perceived as a major security risk. State Secrets could be leaked to potential enemies in the blink of an eye compared to the best horses and fastest ships. National business interests and trade secrets could be jeopardized. Citizens could be corrupted by foreign ideas. Every reasonable subject except some extreme libertarians accepted that strict governance of international telegraph connections was a necessity
I cherish memories of my CCITT days but the world of international telecom has irrevocably changed with privatization and varying degrees of deregulation worldwide. There is no doubt that liberalization let in a torrent of fresh air and unleashed an unprecedented wave of innovation. Internet prevailed and a generation of young computer savvy entrepreneurs freely developed 'over the top' applications that changed the way we work, live and play. Another swell of entrepreneurship and progress is pointing riding the growing global wave of mobile broadband and m2m communications. The world is becoming flat or at least flatter.
We read that some African country decided that you can end up in jail for as long as 15 years if you are using Skype while in the USA, a bipartisan House Committee intends to urge President Obama to reject calls for international regulation of the internet and to preserve its openness.
One should be weary of such polarization. Let the citizens of the world be world citizens. Let them communicate, freely, affordably and securely.
By Yves Poppe, Director, Business Development IP Strategy at Tata Communications. (Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in these articles are solely those of the author and are not in any way attributable to nor reflect any existing or planned official policy or position of his employer in respect thereto.)
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