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ITU debate centers on complicated legal definitions, not UN internet takeover


Hamadoun Toure, Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), speaks during a press conference at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) in Dubai, on December 3, 2012, during the final event of the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). The conference will review the current International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs), which serve as the binding global treaty outlining the principles which govern the way international voice, data and video traffic is handled, and which lay the foundation for ongoing innovation and market growth.


Karim Sahib

While the debate among world governments over changes to the treaty regulating the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) takes place behind closed doors, online activists are terrified that international organizations or national governments could seize control over the internet.

However, what is actually occurring at the ITU’s meeting in Dubai may be much less nefarious than many speculate. In fact, the debates center mostly on the precise language and legal implications of certain definitions — within a treaty governing an organization that was founded over 150 years ago.

“I’m not surprised that we’ve ended up with this narrative about a UN takeover of the internet,” said Ellery Biddle, a policy analyst with the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit public policy organization advocating internet freedom. 

“It’s very hard to communicate about this issue because it isn’t just one law under consideration; it’s a whole host of proposals that cover net neutrality and security,” added Biddle. 

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The real fear over these negotiations is that the ITU could potentially become an institution that has the power to restrict privacy and free expression online. One way it could become such an organization is if some of the definitions in the treaty to change. Those include the definition of an operating agency, or an agency that is handling international telephone connections. Another is the definition of "telecommunications." So far, neither has been defined in a way that extends to include the internet.

As long as those definitions remain unchanged, the ITU would be hard pressed to exercise power over the internet. 

Countries in Europe and North America are currently working to preserve those definitions. Former Soviet countries, China, Russia, Iran and certain Arab states are, perhaps unsurprisingly, working to change them. 

“One particular proposal from Russia ... would bring definitions into the treaty that are not fair, including [definitions for] internet traffic and internet infrastructure.” said Biddle. 

“The other thing the proposal would do is give member states greater power or equal rights to manage the internet including the allotment, assignment and allocation of names numbers,” she added. 

The allotment, assignment and allocation of names and numbers would include the management of web domains. 

Currently, the management of web domains if handled by a non-profit organization incorporated within the US. Because of its location, it falls under US protection. Should a similar entity be hosted within a country like Russia, the government could have the power to decide how certain domains are allocated. 

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For instance, if an anti-Putin activist wanted to buy a domain from a Russian non-profit company managing domain allocation, they may simply stop the activist from purchasing the domain. 

But there are still a number of steps that must be taken for such a scenario to be possible. If changes to these definitions are approved, which is difficult to do, each member state must have the treaty individually ratified by their national governments – harder still. 

While certain proposals being made by countries like Russia and China have the potential to become barriers to internet freedom, there is still a great deal of debating and difficult political maneuvering to be done for it to become a reality.