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<nettime> Parminder Jeet Singh: (ITU,
Patrice Riemens on Sun, 6 Jan 2013 23:00:05 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Parminder Jeet Singh: (ITU,

Published end of November 2012, but still highly relevant.
bwo BytesforAll list)

original to:

Hyping one threat to hide another
Parminder Jeet Singh

The U.S. and dominant global Internet companies fear regulation because it
will adversely affect their control over the communication realm

A lot of global attention right now is focussed on the World Conference on
International Telecommunications of the International Telecommunication
Union (ITU) which will get under way in Dubai next week. This meeting is
taking up a review of International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs).
When the ITRs were last reviewed in 1988, the Internet was not commonplace
and, therefore, did not find mention. In 2012, it is difficult to think of
global communication without the Internet. The key question today is
whether the remit of the ITU should extend to the Internet or not, and if
indeed it should, to what parts and aspects of the Internet, and in what

One summary view, quite popular in many quarters, is that with the
Internet taking over global communication systems, there is no role for
the ITU anymore. Unlike traditional telecommunication ? largely, telephony
? global Internet traffic is mediated entirely through commercial
arrangements among private players with almost no involvement of a
regulator. Free market proponents, having greatly dominated the discourse
so far, hold that the free market has fully triumphed, and delivered, in
relation to the Internet. This model should not be disturbed. There is,
therefore, no need for any kind of regulation of the Internet.

?Free market view'

This ?free market? view has found a powerful ally among freedom of
expression groups, so much so that the debate about the future of the ITU
is almost entirely fronted by evocative appeals about preserving the
Internet as the ultimate domain of free expression. Unlike market
fundamentalism, there are no two views about freedom of expression among
most groups and people, and thus such a strategy is understandable.
Perhaps for similar reasons, Hillary Clinton has spelled ?Internet
freedom? as a key U.S. foreign policy agenda. It may, however, need deeper
thought and analysis to assess whether the real agenda here is to use the
new Internet-based global communication realm ? with the unprecedented
domination of U.S. companies in it ? as the key means for global economic,
social, cultural and political domination in the post-industrial world.
Any kind of global regulation of the Internet, or even articulation of
global principles of public interest, does not serve this agenda.

The issue of freedom of expression vis-à-vis regulation of the Internet is
of course very real. States are quite nervous about the transformational
new means that allow citizens to exercise voice and associational power as
never before. They are scrambling to get their hands on some lever or the
other to prevent the potential damage. And it is not only the developing
countries that are busy in this regard, so are the developed ones, greatly
enhancing their surveillance capabilities. Nevertheless, at the ITU very
few countries have floated proposals that could increase governmental
control over Internet content. These proposals mostly pertain to
subverting the current globally managed Internet names and addresses
system, and the globally configured Internet traffic routing, to create
more controllable national Internet spaces, or ?national segments? of the
Internet, as one proposal calls them. There is very little support for
these proposals. Almost all developed countries and most developing ones,
including India, have not supported these.

At the recently concluded U.N. Internet Governance Forum at Baku, a
reporter asked Terry Kramer, the chief U.S. delegate to the upcoming ITU
conference, what the whole fuss is about when decisions can be taken only
by consensus and there is so much opposition to these problematic
proposals. Mr. Kramer was disarmingly honest in his response. He agreed
that there was not that much real danger of anything happening at the WCIT
itself. But, he said, this is a long-haul thing. What is at stake are the
principles that will guide Internet regulation/governance in the long run.
And in this regard, he continued, Dubai was just one of the many
forums/meetings/crossroads, and many more are yet to come.

The U.S. and the dominant global Internet companies, which are at the
forefront of the anti-ITU campaign, know their game and objectives quite
well. It is important that others do so too. This is about the new
paradigm of global governance/regulation of the communication realm. Most
hype around the WCIT seems to be missing this point, largely because it is
to a considerable extent orchestrated and misled by the dominant powers.

The paradigmatic issue here is whether the Internet, as the centrepiece of
the new global communication realm, should be regulated at all. Freedom of
expression is just one side of the story. The other, rather well disguised
side is about the political economy of the global communication realm. It
is about the division of resources within the communication realm, and,
even more importantly, the larger global and sub-global division of
resources ? economic, social, and political ? which is fundamentally
impacted by the nature of regimes that govern the global communication

Closely regulated

The communication realm ? or more descriptively, the information and
communication realm, and its technologies ? has always been closely
regulated in public interest. It is generally understood that it is of
vital and extraordinary public interest, and cannot just be subject only
to normal commercial regulation, that for instance governs trade in white
goods. Every telephone company is obliged to carry the traffic from every
other company in a non-discriminatory manner, which is called the common
carriage rule. One can well imagine what it would be like if this rule is
not enforced. Long back, there was a time when there was no such rule. The
telephony revolution was made possible because regulators forced common
carriage regulation on big companies in the U.S. and other places.
Similarly, the IT revolution began when regulators in the U.S. forced
software to be unbundled from hardware, whereby an independent software
industry could develop. The rest is history.

There are universal service obligations in the telecom sector whereby
every telecom provider must service every person/ household, etc., whether
it serves its business model or not. And then there are regulations on
tariffs, quality of service and so on. Telecom providers are forced to
comply with disability friendly features, and they also contribute to
Universal Service Funds that are used to universalise communication
services. All of this, and much more, will disappear in an unregulated
communication system. In taking a collective political decision on whether
the Internet is at all to be regulated or not, we need to understand that
we are taking decisions on all these issues, and not just on freedom of

In order to understand the real stakes in the ?regulation or not? debate
regarding the Internet, it is best to look at what is happening in the
U.S. right now. The U.S. telecom market is dominated by two players,
Verizon and AT&T. Verizon has challenged the Federal Communication
Commission?s authority to enforce net neutrality (the Internet equivalent
of the ?common carriage? rule), arguing that the Internet is not telecom
and thus outside the FCC?s mandate. AT&T went a step further. It claimed
that since even traditional telecom services, like telephony, increasingly
work on Internet Protocols (IP), the FCC?s remit should not cover even
telephony. In essence, more or less, the claim is that no regulation of
the communication systems is needed at all. The FCC can close down!
Markets have taken over, and are their own arbitrators!

California recently became the latest of many States in the U.S., mostly
Republican-ruled, which have deregulated Voice-over-Internet-Protocol,
effectively removing regulatory control over telephony service,
disregarding the concerns expressed by many public interest groups. There
are many deep implications of such changeovers. To give just one
illustration, unlike traditional telephony systems that are obliged to
have their own power-supply to account for emergency situations, the new
IP based systems do not have such obligations. When most ?new systems?
failed recently in the aftermath of Storm Sandy, unlike earlier times, the
FCC found itself unable to question the disaster preparedness of the
companies providing much of the communication infrastructure in the U.S.

What is happening at the ITU today, in good measure, is this game of
freeing our communication realm from all public interest regulation. As
mentioned, it is about a new paradigm of ?complete non-regulation.? And
once the victory is achieved at the ITU, whereby the Internet and other IP
networks, which would soon be the basis of all communication
infrastructure, are considered out of any kind of regulatory oversight,
the game will then be replayed at the national level, citing ?global
norms.? In fact, during an on-the-side chat at a recent Internet
governance meeting in New Delhi, a telecom company representative made a
significant give-away remark. He said to an official of the Telecom
Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), ?but isn?t net neutrality about the
Internet, and therefore TRAI should have nothing to do about it.?

In presenting a view on whether or not the Internet should be subject to
the remit of the ITU and the ITRs, India may be taking a position on
whether it seeks to free the Internet from all regulatory control, which
logic would then perforce also extend to TRAI?s remit at home. The least
one can say, and appeal to the government and other actors in the space,
is that this should be a considered decision after thoroughly assessing
all sides of the story.

Freedom of expression is not the only issue that is involved here. There
are so many other issues, involving significant economic, social and
cultural considerations, that are at stake with regard to regulation of
the Internet. It may not be wise to throw out the baby with the bath

(Parminder Jeet Singh is Executive Director of Bangalore based NGO, IT for
Change. Email: parminder {AT} itforchange.net)

Keywords: Internet regulation, Internet freedom, Freedom of expression,
International Telecommunications, ITU, ITRs, global Internet traffic

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