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The Great ITU Internet Heist

Anthony Rutkowski

There was a meeting in Geneva a few weeks ago dealing with Internet names and addresses. Known as the Second Informal Expert Group Meeting of the Fifth World Telecommunication / Information and Communication Technologies Policy Forum, it was yet another of the endless blathering bodies on this subject that have met for the past fourteen years.

The script is always the same, and actually has a long history in the ITU. Russia — as it has for every technology for the past 80 years — calls for communication controls to promote peace and security. Similarly-minded Nation States join Russia. Another set of nations declare the technology to be the "common resource of mankind," and the group gropes for something over which they can attempt dominion through a favorite clueless organization that can be easily manipulated. Names and address are the low-hanging fruit. Never ending rhetoric then bountifully ensues, occasionally abetted by elected officials and attendees who exploit the continuing job opportunities in keeping the banter going. Since the 1930s, the cycle has been repeated many times with the arrival of every new global communication technology.

Catchy rallying slogans like New World Information/Communications Order were invented for these scripts in the past. This time, the slogans are Global Principles for the Governance and Use of the Internet or Development and Diffusion of ICTs Globally.

In the 1990s, yet again the old script was dusted off by a new generation of players at the ITU. However, there was a difficult challenge this time around. The ITU had pursued its own internet protocols and applications since the early 1980s. For nearly 15 years, the ITU's OSI internet platforms were competing against the academic community's TCP/IP internet platforms. Despite all kinds of government attempts — including being written into the WCIT-88 treaty instrument — the ITU platforms completely failed in the marketplace in the 1990s. Millions of industry hours and billions of dollars had been wasted to prop up the ITU internet platforms. Worse yet, the ITU had its own internet names and addresses to manage, and the TCP/IP Internet community refused to join the ITU collective and instead chose independence.

Sensing an opportunity to maintain some relevancy, the ITU began moving forward in the mid-1990s with what can only be described as The Great ITU Internet Heist. The first opportunity occurred when IANA moved away from DARPA control in 1996. The ITU General Secretariat at the time jumped in with an attempt by MoU to assume responsibility for Internet names and addresses. The U.S. government quickly stopped that plan. The responsibility instead was assumed by the U.S. Dept of Commerce, and through subsequent public policy proceedings, outsourced to ICANN and other entities.

The 1996 attempt was unusual because it was undertaken by the ITU General Secretariat which possessed no operational authority. The ITU-T's Secretariat couldn't do this because the names and numbers were created by the specifications of another standards body — the IETF. It was also highly embarrassing for the ITU-T, because this activity involved the very standards that trashed fifteen years of ITU-T work. Although this 1996 attempt was halted, it set the stage for the next ITU takeover plan.

The ITU began a concerted effort of institutional amnesia by forgetting about all of its massive IT platform failures that were road-kill on the information superhighway: OSI internet protocols and applications, ISDN, broadband ISDN, and mobile infrastructure. All of this history was simply erased from the ITU collective consciousness.

Instead, the 1998 ITU Plenipotentiary Conference embarked on a concerted effort through two infamous resolutions to potentially assume control of...you guessed it, Internet naming and addressing. It also positioned the ITU thereafter to itself decide "the range of Internet-related issues that fall within [ITU] responsibilities." So by the ITU's own bald assertion, its nation-State Members simply declared that the network identifiers developed and maintained by another organization — together with the associate private-sector infrastructure — were for the ITU to oversee (but not actually control). This breathtaking takeover attempt was a unique event in telecommunications history.

For the next 14 years, the Internet and its network identifiers have been fair game for the ITU. Indeed, at the next Plenipotentiary Conference in 2002, the 1998 tactic of jurisdiction expansion by resolution was used again to claim dominion over the entire Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) universe via an undefined phrase that the ITU simply fabricated itself. The ITU's Fifth World Telecommunication/ Information and Communication Technologies Policy Forum (WTPF) and World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) and their unending successors are penance for the sins of the 1998 and 2002 Plenipotentiary Conferences.

These "heists" have had adverse consequences beyond encouraging surreal dialogue and never-ending political agendas that ensue in most ITU venues. In a market driven, fast-paced world of IT networks and services, almost everything today occurs elsewhere than the ITU. The only exception is the ITU radiocommunication sector. As a result, ITU forums face a dwindling number of people who show up either to 1) opine on a universe in which the ITU is all but irrelevant and barely cognizant, or 2) remind those present of the real world that exists.

By Anthony Rutkowski, Principal, Netmagic Associates LLC

Related topics: ICANN, Internet Governance


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ICANN Bringing it on itself now. Mark Jeftovic  –  Oct 30, 2012 7:17 AM PDT

As long as ICANN continues to ignore global governance issues and cedes authority over all domain names operated out of US-based registry operators to US lawmakers and bureaucrats (and continues to grant a quasi-monopoly of .com to Verisign - a US operator) there will be an underlying impetus to take oversight of the naming system away from ICANN and out of the jurisdiction of a single nation state.

I'm not saying the naming system would be better governed by the ITU, but as long as ICANN's stance on arbitrary US takedowns of non-US operated domains is simply "that's not our problem" then there will be less and less will to simply back the status quo as the overreach gets more egregious and farcical. Eventually they will be correct as either the naming system gets taken away from them or we wind up with a fragmented root. If the latter happens then blame can be entirely laid at the feet of ICANN for their cavalier lack of leadership on these issues.

As someone who was part of the Anthony Rutkowski  –  Oct 30, 2012 8:03 AM PDT

As someone who was part of the original NSF oversight committee as well as the birth of ICANN, I've been a critic of ICANN.  Unfortunately, the environment is an imperfect one with intractable challenges and balancing of interests.  In retrospect, ICANN has done comparatively well in dealing with those challenges.

With that said, however, nothing justifies an intergovernmental organization blatantly asserting oversight of the identifiers of another body - the IETF.  The ITU has its own internet identifiers to play with - although they have not done well in the marketplace.  The ITU's involvement in almost everything outside its core telecommunication remit has for the past 40 years has been a debacle.

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