ITU Lashes Back At Critics As Conference Gets Underway

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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The ITU responds to critics such as Google who accuse it of seeking to gain control of the Internet

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has responded to criticisms aimed against it by the likes of Google and the European Parliament, arguing that the positions taken against it are nothing but hot air.

The controversy comes as ITU launches its World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12), which runs from 3 to 14 December in Dubai. The conference will discuss revising the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs), the treaty establishing international rules for telecommunications systems, which were last updated in 1988.

Google, EU attacks

ITU has come under heavy criticism ahead of the conference, notably from Google and the European Union, which have charged that any changes could risk damaging the framework that has allowed the Internet to succeed so far.

However, the issues highlighted by ITU’s critics – such as the protection of freedom of communcation and the regulatory structure of the Internet – are valid ones, but do not fall within the conference’s remit, according to ITU.

The body pointed out that it has no regulatory authority over any networks whatever, and said that this can’t be changed at the conference, since it is laid down by separate UN resolutions agreed in 2010.

“Nothing can be agreed at WCIT-12 to change or negate this mandate,” said ITU counsellor Richard Hill in a blog post on ITU’s website. “In addition to this point, no proposals exist to give more power to ITU as an institution… Networks are regulated by national governments, not by ITU – which is a multi-stakeholder, bottom-up organisation.”

Freedom of communication

Another major issue, that of freedom of communication, is also outside of the conference’s scope of debate, according to Hill.

He noted that freedom of expression and the right to communicate are already enshrined in UN and international treaties, including Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which have been taken into account in the ITU’s constitution.

“Since the ITU Constitution prevails over the ITRs, nothing in the ITRs has the power to result in a reduction of freedom to communicate,” Hill said.

He said the real goal of the conference is to renegotiate the ITRs in a way that can help poorer countries derive benefits from communications technologies.

“There is a common goal of fostering innovation and driving down prices, in particular for users in developing countries,” Hill said. “A revised treaty can help harness the power of ICTs to deliver social and economic benefits in every nation on earth, including across every sector.”

Commercial interests

He admitted it is possible that this process could create limitations for some already well-established Internet companies, and argued that the European Parliament’s criticisms appear to have followed the lines of argument put forward by those companies.

“It is unfortunate and disappointing to see that the European Parliament appears to base its Resolution on misleading and erroneous conjecture put forth by certain companies who are defending their commercial interests, in particular when those companies are not even European companies,” Hill said.

The European Parliament recently adopted an EU Resolution on the subject of WCIT-12 which accused ITU of a “lack of transparency”, among other criticisms.

The resolution follows on the heels of a Google campaign launched last month which made similar claims against WCIT-12, accusing it of being “secretive” and allowing participation by governments alone.

ITU argues that the negotiation process is completely transparent, but that it is up to participating governments to make the materials available to the public. The organisation also observed that the more than 1900 representatives at the meeting from 193 countries include members of private industry, R&D institutions, academia and the public – and Google itself has several people representing it in the US delegation.

ITU argued that its structure is designed to allow bodies from around the world to arrive at a consensus that permits technologies to interoperate, and that this process has continued to be effective through two world wars and the Cold War.

International battles

Google’s battles with international regulatory bodies are likely to become increasingly aggressive as the company looks to defend the search status quo that has allowed it to rake in $37.9bn in 2011, according to Rob Enderle, principal analyst with the Enderle Group.

“They’re acting like Microsoft did in the past, where they think they are above others,” he said, commenting on the recent anti-ITU campaign.

Google is also currently campaigning against a proposed German law that would allow German newspaper publishers to charge Google a fee for providing links to newspaper stories.

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