Diplomatic Arm-Wrestling Over Scope Of International Telecommunication Regulations Treaty

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As the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) treaty comes under review, some observers are warning that it could change the rules of the game in internet governance. Others are trying to give reassurance that the new ITRs aim at enabling better access to telecommunications everywhere.

UN International Telecommunication Union Secretary General Hamadoun Touré said during the penultimate preparatory meeting in Geneva last week that internet governance was a topic not for the treaty negotiations, but rather for the 2013 World Telecom Policy Forum. Still there are proposals from several member states that try to extend the original regulation to the internet realm.

The ITRs are the “only global treaty addressing international telecommunications,” according to Malcolm Johnson, director of the ITU Telecommunication Standardization Bureau. Of the ITU’s 193 members, 178 are bound to its general principles on phone interconnection. But as the treaty was adopted in 1988 many of its provisions are outdated due to privatization of the sector, globalisation, and the triumph of the internet nearly worldwide.

Fluid Scope

The text was “overdue for revision,” Johnson said in an official interview, and after years of discussion among ITU members, a date has been set for the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), for December this year. The new ITRs are expected to address some of the pressing concerns of the industry and allow especially “low-cost access to the internet” everywhere, he said.

Phil Rusthon, numbering and standards strategist at British Telecom, told participants at a recent meeting of the IP address managers for Europe and the Middle East that the outcome of the WCIT conference is highly uncertain and the scope of the new ITR “fairly fluid.”

Among the hotly debated high-level issues was that if ITU recommendations become mandatory instead of voluntary. This could shift ITU standards into quasi-legal norms and give them privileges over standards from other standardization bodies. Yet the 47-member European regional group, represented by the Conférence Européenne des Administrations des Postes et des Télécommunications (CEPT, one of six regional groups at ITU), warned the ITR could “not be used to change the non-binding nature of ITU recommendations.” [corrected]

Other issues of contention are additional provisions on security, from anti-spam provisions to the obligation to provide a calling line identification (CLI), potentially also for internet telephony, to allow tracking misuse. “If I cannot provide the full international CLI,” Rushton explained rules in classical telecommunications, “I have to provide country of origin. Can this be done on an IP network? Can it be done using the session initiation protocol [SIP, a protocol enabling internet telephony]?” he asked.

Clash of Systems, Economy-Wise

Internet telephony using SIP protocol is seen by some ITU member states as siphoning off revenues from classic telephony providers, as a statement by Iran’s ITU representative made clear. He had paid only a few cents for a call home which would normally cost 10 Swiss francs, he said. “My country and Switzerland lost money,” he said.

African countries want to see cost-based transit, termination, and roaming rates, transparency, and an effort from member states to act against asymmetries of charging. The US favours a completely hands-off approach, and Europe is trying to get compromise on administrations pushing for economic efficiency, competition and price transparency for customers.

Compromise about the paragraph on charging for international telecommunication services given the diametrically opposed proposals, on one hand leave charging to the market (as proposed by the US and also CEPT) versus having regulators involved in the pricing on the other hand (as proposed by the Arab states, but also Russia) are still on the to-do list for the last prep meeting in June.

From the point of view of the IP address managers, what is even more scary are considerations with regard to state intervention on routing. “There is a proposal that member states should have the right to dictate what routes are used into their national sovereign area,” said Rushton.

Variations on how deep states could get into the routing decisions range from a general right to know how traffic is arriving or leaving the country to the possibility of imposing routing regulations, when it comes to security or countering fraud measures.

Clash of Systems: Politics

Member states at the meeting in Geneva have considered putting all security-related provisions in a special, new paragraph of the ITR, but after three days of discussion last week this is another of the highly sensitive parts to be left over for yet another three day meeting.

Organisations like the Internet Society highlighted the broad range of topics which are dispersed over the hundred or so contributions to the WCIT process that states think the ITR should address, including content-related issues like online child protection, the hot issue of data protection or CEPT-supported promotion of anti-spam legislation. The Internet Society analysis is here [pdf].

The Russian proposal for a new Article 9 includes protection of the confidentiality of communication, but also clear “processing and protection” of subscriber information.

From the standpoint of the various internet self-governance bodies, especially the IP address registries that follow the WCIT process closely, resurrected proposals with regard to changes in IP address management – not yet clearly written down by the proponents, but given placeholder numbers in the stack of preparatory documents – also are of some concern. Were the new security related paragraphs accepted, the Internet Society wrote in an analysis of proposals, member states would be required “to take on a very active role in patrolling and enforcing newly defined standards of behaviour on telecommunication and internet networks and services.”

More state intervention on the internet is what a phalanx of US officials prominently came to speak against, with White House Deputy CTO Danny Weitzner joining the club of critics at the Computer & Communications Industry Association’s Washington caucus. Weitzer, according to a Washington Internet Daily report, said the US was going to make sure that UN organisations such as the ITU don’t step too far into the internet environment. Organisations like the Internet Engineering Task Force, the World Wide Web Consortium (for which Weitzner acted as head of technology and society activities) and ICANN are up to the task of continuing to grow the internet environment, he said.

Many Western – and some Asian – countries are clearly pushing for a “lean” follow-up ITR treaty. And with many of the major issues not solved – nor even touched – during the penultimate prep meeting, a thick pile of papers can be expected to go to the Dubai treaty conference in December.

Government officials, when asked if there is a possibility of failure, point to earlier ITU conferences, for example, the last edition of the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference in Guadalajara, and their last-minute, late-night compromises.

To the internet community, which looks somewhat bewildered by the ITU processes, Rushton gave a clear warning not to wait until the last minute: “Unless you engage in the debate going forward as an individual, through your government or through RIPE NCC [Network Coordination Center], then the potential is that you will be left with the results that maybe you don’t want – if you are a pessimist.”

Monika Ermert may be reached at info@ip-watch.ch.

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