The traditional network operators see OTT services as a threat, and the companies offering them are perceived to be getting a free lunch over their networks — they are calling for international regulation.
In particular, the European telcos (united in ETNO) have been claiming that this undermines their investment in infrastructure and they want to use the WCIT conference in Dubai later this year to lobby for regulatory changes that would see certain levies being levied — something that is strenuously opposed by, among others, the USA and the APAC countries. So far, for that reason alone, the ETNO proposal has little chance of success. Furthermore, the telcos have no direct influence at the WCIT conference unless one of the 193 member states of the ITU takes their proposal on board and files the document for the meeting; and this has not happened. However this hasn't stopped a heated debate taking place, during which the UN and ITU have come under fire, via wild and untrue accusations that they want to take over the internet.
While that makes good (scaremongering) press, the reality is that the internet is bigger than the European telcos, the ITU and even the UN; it would be impossible to make any serious changes to it and to the way it operates. Nevertheless there are plenty of issues that need to be responsibly addressed, as commented in previous analyses, blogs and submissions to the various parties involved in the broad range of internet governance issues (See: The Future of the Internet).
What we have argued is that most certainly a number of issues have come to the fore now that the internet is beginning to mature, and that these will need to be addressed; it is also our contention that some of the issues at the core of the problem have been ignored, or even deliberately created, and all parties involved are to blame for at least some of this (including certain governments).
The reason for this is the conflicts of interest:
Because of the vested interests involved the best thing to do to protect one's own interest is to make the issues as complex as possible, so as to hide one's misdeeds and at the same blame others.
The ITU has proposed using the International Telecommunication Regulations to address these issues under the following headings:
The word 'regulations' in the ITR has been like a red flag to a bull.
This situation was aggravated by the fact that the European telcos have launched a proposal that indeed would lead to new international internet regulations. They have tried to hide this under the banner of the telecoms service 'IP' but in reality they want to 'tax' the OTT providers for using the telecoms networks.
As mentioned above, this proposal is not (yet) supported by an ITU member state and is opposed by the other half of the world, so it will have no chance of success. I strongly believe that issues put on the table by the Europeans should be addressed, not by regulation, but by the transformation of the telco industry and by a structural separation between infrastructure and services. Only this will create a basis for renewed investments in infrastructure.
Another disappointment for Europe is that they have failed to create their own digital economy giants. While some were developed by Europeans, in the end they are all American products. You cannot blame America for this, but one has to wonder why innovation failed. BuddeComm addressed this in a report for the Dutch government in 2009: Trans-sector Innovations.
At the CITI State of Telecom 2012 conference at Columbia University in New York City — in the heart of America and before a rather hostile audience — Dr Hamadoun Touré the Secretary-General of the ITU addressed the conference.
In a very eloquent way he first explained that he would not support any voting on conflicting elements. He said that this was not the way the ITU works. The ITU was formed in 1865 and he said that during the period of two world wars and a cold war the ITU decisions have always been made on the basis of consensus. The overriding importance of global telecommunications has overcome all political differences and he was not inclined to see any changes to such a process during the upcoming WCIT.
As many of the ITR issues listed above are affecting all participants in the internet it is important that these issues are put on the table, are properly studied and considered, and that 'recommendations' are then made that are going to be accepted by the ITU. The ITU does not have the power of enforcement, so compromises will have to be made. Unless an ITU member state raises the issue of the European telcos there is also no chance that the more heavy-handed regulations proposed by ETNO will end up in those recommendations.
What the Secretary-General asked for was — look at the issues, agree that they are important, and then discuss them — and look for collaboration and cooperation to find ways that allow the world to make the internet a better, safer and affordable place for everybody. Very few can argue against that.
His speech made a deep impression on all of the delegates. This doesn't mean that those with very strong views, or those who have a particular political interest, have changed their mind; or that those who are sceptical about the ITU and about the Secretary-General personally have changed their mind. But everybody got the message that collaboration and cooperation are advocated by the ITU and, again, you can't really argue against such principles.
In relation to the American situation, it is believed that after the American election there will be room for a more moderate stand on the issues, and that would help to form the basis for good outcomes at the WCIT.
Those coming into the discussion from the Internet side, are arguing that a much broader stakeholder representation is required, this is another argument used against the ITU — as well as claims that they have been secretive, autocratic and do not take the broader internet stakeholders into account. Some of this is true, and better process is needed, to allow for a much broader participation. Currently 98% of the traffic is data, yet the structure in place is still based on a mainly telephone company structure. If the ITU want to update their ITRs they will also have to update their structure to better reflect the new situation.
Indeed the ITU is making itself more transparent and the whole debate about the ITRs is a good example that this seems to work. Also each member state (government) can bring its own delegation to the ITU and to WCIT, and can participate. So the broader internet community can lobby their government to include representatives from them in these delegations. But more will need to be done here.
As I have mentioned in previous reports, these internet organisations have not always proved to be very strategic, cooperative, and in some instances not very transparent. It is also up to these communities to step up their activities, become more involved in the broader debate and share in the burden of addressing the real issues that are on the table in Dubai. Some of these groups also have their own vested interests.
The Secretary-General most certainly reached out to everybody, and he wants to see WCIT representing all the stakeholders involved. From personal experience I know that he is also a very approachable person, so there should be no reason for anybody to feel excluded. But what we also have to realise is that all those involved have their own vested interests, plus their own reasons for making the issues more complex than they need to be, and that is not a good basis for finding solutions. There will have to be genuine interest from all parties in solving the issues that are on the table. They are all serious ones, and as far we can judge have not been made to favour one over the other.
The best way ahead is first of all to untangle the mess, see what the issues are, which ones are national problems and which need international attention, and to then decide which is the best group to handle them. It should be an all-encompassing effort from everyone involved, and indeed in close cooperation and collaboration.
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