The apocalypse that didn't happen
So far the world has survived WCIT-12 and the internet has not been taken over by anybody. So, in the end, what was all the fuss about?
Those who have followed my reporting on these issues from the very beginning more than a year ago — long before the media frenzy on this topic started (see: The Governance of the Internet) — will have seen that we never took the sensational approach. We fully understood the issues that were emerging, but at the same time we could also place them in the right context, to explore how they should be addressed. Even at that early stage we suggested cooperation with ICANN and it was good to see that this indeed eventuated at WCIT-12.
We also indicated from the beginning that we needed to separate the various issues in order to see how they could be best addressed. This is what the first week of WCIT-12 has been all about. However I did not fully appreciate at that time what would be involved in 'herding 193 cats' — the number of countries involved in the ITU — in the same direction. This required some amazing diplomatic skills.
The largest scaremongering came from the USA, particularly through campaigns organised by Google; but when it became clear that the internet apocalypse wasn't going to happen people started to question Google's own agenda in all of this.
The frenzy was also fueled by the hard line taken by the US Administration on issues such as 'the take-over of the internet'. While it was understood that this was part of a posturing strategy it certainly fed the media frenzy in the USA.
What was conveniently left out of these discussions was the fact that proposals made by member states are not the same as policies accepted by the full ITU membership. It was these proposals that were promoted by the attackers as evidence that the end of the world was at hand.
Consensus is building
Now, at the end of the first week of WCIT-12, it is clear that, as expected, a far more conciliatory approach is being taken by all delegates.
The separation of the issues referred to above did, in fact, take place and the discussion was narrowed down to what WCIT is all about — updating the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs).
As indicated, there are a few things that I have come to appreciate during week one.
First of all, the language that is used; and the definitions. When you think about it, terms such 'operating agencies', 'security' and 'ICT', cover an extensive variety of concepts and if you want to include them in international treaties you need to be damn sure that everybody uses the same language. Another complication is that in different languages different translations — and often more than one — apply to these concepts. Listening to all the delegates involved in this discussion made me realise how important that is, and that it is not something that can be easily dealt with. Furthermore, some countries have different political agendas — this becomes clear when you listen to the statements made by those countries.
Amazingly, people do eventually come together on most of the issues.
Political posturing and diplomacy
In this context I also appreciated the tough stand that countries such as the USA, Canada, Australia and the European Union took on some of the issues. In the end that worked to clarify matters somewhat, as their strong language made everybody focus on the right issues.
And at the end of the week the US delegation officially declared 'so far so good'. This came as something of a shock to some of the media, who now have to back-peddle on their doom and gloom reporting.
How to move beyond WCIT-12
Are we there yet? No, of course not. There is one more week to go. But I am prepared to stick my neck out and say that there will most likely be a good outcome.
The ITRs, as they exist since we developed them and put them in place in Melbourne in 1988, enabled the world to create the internet. They will stay, albeit fine-tuned a bit; and as proven tools they can, and should, be used by the non-connected or under-connected communities and countries to their own benefit.
As argued in the UN Broadband Commission and in its discussions with various governments around the world, it is now up to these countries to develop policies and strategies that are aimed at obtaining the social and economic benefits of the hard work that has led to the successful telecoms infrastructure from which the whole world is benefiting.
Thanks to organisations like the ITU, who have been working on this since 1865, we can make a telephone call to anybody in the world and access the internet from wherever we are. Compare that with the level of standardisation in the IT world, or in any other sector for that matter. There will be few people who would claim that this is not a great thing, so let us make sure we continue along that road.
Once WCIT-12 is brought to a good conclusion we can start looking at how we can assist the under-connected to become part of the global digital economy, so they can start reaping their own social and economic benefits and thus fund the investments for the infrastructure they need.
Governments should perhaps use some of their often extensive USO funds and lucrative spectrum auctions to channel those incomes to national broadband infrastructure, and work together with their industry to develop their own national broadband plans.
The multi-stakeholders platform established at WCIT-12 should have as a priority assisting countries to build up capacity and human skills to make this happen.
Follow-up ITU meetings and conferences over the next few years can take these issues further and help in developing government and industry policies and strategies, as well as business models that will allow these countries to create their own incomes, rather than depending on handouts coming from the ageing international accounting rate structures. Obviously these old structures cannot be demolished overnight; a transitional period is needed and, again, this is where the rest of the world can assist.
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