What is the ITU? The Struggle for Internet Governance

Another storm is brewing over Internet governance. Several countries, including Russia, China, and India, have proposed empowering the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) – a specialized agency of the United Nations – to oversee various aspects of Internet governance. The issue will come to a head in December, when the 193 member states of the ITU convene at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai to vote on these proposals.

This raises three important questions: who regulates the Internet today, what is the ITU, and what is at stake in December? 

Who governs the Internet today? 

At a basic level, there are two sides to the Internet governance coin: communications and standards. Governments oversee Internet communications within their borders (e.g. enacting laws relating to online conduct and services). Alternatively, non-government multistakeholder organizations – like the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) – administer Internet standards. (e.g. the Domain Name System and Internet Protocol). This means that while people across the globe generally connect to the same Internet, laws governing people’s use of the Internet may differ from state to state.

What is the ITU? 

The ITU was originally formed in 1865 to implement international standards for the telegraph. Today the ITU allocates the global radio spectrum, coordinates the assignment of satellite orbits, and promotes standards related to the global telecommunications infrastructure.

For an annual fee of approximately $32,000 USD, non-governmental organizations can join the ITU as Sector Members and participate in preparatory work for the WCIT. However, membership is not open to individuals, and only member states vote on changes to the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs), the ITU treaty up for revision in December.

What is at stake in December?

At the WCIT, the ITU member states will consider revisions to the ITRs designed to bring various aspects of Internet communications (e.g., spam, cybersecurity, data privacy, online child protection, etc.) and standards (relating to domain names and numbers) within the ITU’s jurisdiction. The adoption of one or more of these proposed revisions would mark a shift away from the existing multistakeholder model of governance, toward an international regulatory regime less open to participation by civil society.

Should the ITU regulate the Internet?

No. Beneath the United States’ decision to relinquish control of Internet standards to a multistakeholder body was a recognition that the unique character of the Internet demanded an innovative model of governance. The existing multistakeholder system may be imperfect, but shifting regulatory authority to a nearly 150-year-old international body is surely a step in the wrong direction.

The Internet will continue to raise novel concerns for state actors around the world. And perhaps the role of governments within the current regulatory scheme requires fine tuning. However, the community of nations should be one voice within a multistakeholder model of governance; not the voice. The ITU is not the proper agency to oversee the Internet.

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