The ITU: How we got here, how PK is involved, and what’s at stake

This December, the 193 countries of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) will gather in Dubai to revise the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs). Before diving into specific issues and proposals, let’s lay out how we got here, how PK is involved, and what’s at stake.

How We Got Here

  • The “ITU” was founded in 1865 as the International Telegraph Union. Its purpose was to set standards for countries’ telegraph networks to connect and communicate with each other.
  • The ITU has grown since then to include telegraphy, telephony, radio, and, finally, all telecommunications.
  • The International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) were agreed upon in the 1988 negotiations in Australia. Their purpose is to facilitate worldwide interconnection of telecom networks.
  • In May of 2012, leaked documents created a stir by showing that some of the proposed changes to the ITRs are intended to expand significantly the jurisdiction of the ITU to address issues such as how traffic is exchanged on the internet and how policies should deal with regulating content on the Internet.  
  • This December, the 193 member states of the ITU will gather in Dubai for the World Conference on International Telecommunications, which will revise the ITRs for the first time since 1988.
  • Between now and then, governments around the world will prepare for these negotiations by shoring up their own country positions and also establishing common understandings among geographic regions.

How We’re Involved

Two members of PK’s staff—Harold Feld and Rashmi Rangnath—are on the 95-person US delegation as “private sector advisors” along with a few other non-profits, academics, and companies. Harold, Senior Vice President, has been a recognized expert in telecommunications policy for almost 15 years. Rashmi, Director of PK’s Global Knowledge Initiative, has headed up PK’s international work since 2006.

Our role as one of the few public interest representatives on the delegation is to advise the US government on how changes to the ITRs would impact free speech, innovation, the open architecture of the internet, the cost of internet access, and other public interest concerns. Harold and Rashmi will be taking part in meetings, reviewing proposals, and prepping for negotiations. They will also be on the ground in Dubai this December for the 10-day international negotiations.

What’s at Stake

We are concerned that proposals from some countries might call for the wrong approach to internet governance. For instance, certain proposals could allow governments to control or monitor how traffic is routed on the internet. Such proposals, if accepted, could make censorship and surveillance easier, raise free speech concerns, and negatively impact the existing open architecture of the internet. This architecture has lowered barriers to entry for innovative companies and individuals, and has led to tremendous economic growth and consumer welfare. It has made the internet a powerful tool for innovation and the free flow of information.

In addition to country proposals, private entities also have their own positions on how the ITRs should be revised and some of them have even proposed changes. For instance ETNO, the association of European telecommunications companies, has put forward a “sending party pays” proposal that would change how carriers charge each other for exchange of traffic. If a country were to pick up the proposal and formally introduce it at the ITU, we are concerned that such a proposal would disrupt the way internet traffic is exchanged today and increase the cost of internet access. This is an issue that deserves further analysis and explanation, so look for a more in-depth blog post soon.

While we think that the ITU should, as a general matter, not extend its jurisdiction to internet governance issues, we do believe that an international conversation on these issues is important. We acknowledge in particular the many concerns of developing nations who may not adequately represented in these debates. We think these concerns should be addressed in open processes that provide an equal voice to governments, businesses, the internet technical community, and civil society.

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