Authoritarians Win, Internet Loses in Dubai

China Military Parade

Before Thanksgiving, we released a report on the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai, warning that some bad things were likely to happen at this obscure confab of the 193 nation ITU. We were particularly worried about four things:

  1. Attempts to impose international interconnection fees, similar to PSTN practice.
  2. Attempts to expand censorship and surveillance in autocratic states
  3. China’s desire to convert ITU-T “Recommendations,” which are voluntary technical standards today, into mandatory regulations.
  4. Russia’s desire to transfer the management of Internet addresses and assigned names  and numbers from ICANN to the ITU.

Most other people were worried about the outcome of WCIT, but a few were full of sunshine and roses all along: telecom consultant Paul Budde of the CircleID blog was especially shameless in his admiration for proposals that his own government (Australia) ultimately rejected, and several prominent techno-hipsters said there was nothing to see at WCIT. ITU hit man Paul Conneally said Google was getting people stirred up over nothing, but the most sage advice came from Tony Rutkowski, the former ITU policy chief who said the only way to win at WCIT is not to play, in part because ITU secretary-general Hamadoun Touré is essentially a Russian puppet.

Here’s what happened:

  1. Transit and interconnection charges are going to resemble telephone network practices, in which first world networks will pay more than third world networks. (Appendix 1)
  2. Content examination and rejection according to local sensitivities will become the accepted international norm. (Article 5)
  3. The ITU-T technical standards that China dictates have been elevated to such a high level that they’re effectively binding on all signatories of the treaty. (Articles 1 and 3-5)
  4. Each nation shall be free to manage Internet names and numbers as it sees fit, regardless of ICANN policy (Article 3.)

So this was the worst case scenario. It’s so bad, in fact, that it’s not likely to have nearly as much impact as the proponents wanted. As it stands, the United States, Japan, UK, Australia, Kenya, and much of Western Europe have publicly declared they won’t sign the treaty that’s the vehicle for operationalizing these authoritarian whims.

The nations that are allowing themselves to go along with the farce will buy their gear from Chinese and Russian firms in hopes that they can have firms operating in the democracies pay for it. That won’t happen, so they’ll fall farther behind the developed world, but that will be fine with their rulers.

The only way to put a stop to WCIT ratification by the oil states and the third world nations would be some sort of mass public protests, but that’s not likely to happen.

This is what the beginning of the end of the Internet actually looks like: International fragmentation into our nice, open, Western Internet on the one hand and the heavy-handed, fascist Internet of the rest of the world on the other.

I wish I were exaggerating.

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About the author

Richard Bennett is an ITIF Senior Research Fellow specializing in broadband networking and Internet policy. He has a 30 year background in network engineering and standards. He was vice-chair of the IEEE 802.3 task group that devised the original Ethernet over Twisted Pair standard, and has contributed to Wi-Fi standards for fifteen years. He was active in OSI, the instigator of RFC 1001, and founder, along with Bob Metcalfe, of the Open Token Foundation, the first network industry alliance to operate an interoperability lab. He has worked for leading applied research labs, where portions of his work were underwritten by DARPA. Richard is also the inventor of four networking patents and a member of the BITAG Technical Working Group.