The World Conference on Telecommunications of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) ended in a showdown in Dubai with the US and some of its allies walking out of the meeting, refusing to sign the new International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs). They said that they would not allow the ITRs, and, in general, the ITU, to take up Internet related issues. There was, however, no mention of the Internet in the final draft of the ITRs. The US objected even to some language on security and spam that could apply equally to traditional telecommunications and the Internet.

The excuse for walking out on the treaty by the US seems rather weak. The US appeared to be making a clear point; it did not think that the new global communication systems being built around the Internet needed any global regulation, principles or norm-setting at all. Global free markets are working well and will take care of everything. Evidently, the opposition to developing high-level principles seem to apply only to UN organizations like the ITU, where all the countries are represented. Only last year, the OECD developed high-level principles for Internet policy making. There is also a chapter on Internet in the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement that the OECD is negotiating.

Where does civil society stand?

Many think that the US committed a diplomatic blunder in walking out of a treaty process where it had got most of what it wanted. In having done so, it may end up hardening the position of other countries against the unilateral control that the US exercises on the root systems of the Internet. In the mid to long term, it may also harm the interests of the US-based trans-national Internet businesses, which form a near oligopoly on the Internet.


On the other hand, there seems to be some logic for the US to take such a hard stance. Stronger intellectual property regimes and leveraging its control over the global Internet are the two principal elements of US's post-industrial age strategy for global domination. Having closely aligned their geopolitical interests with the US, some of the major Northern countries habitually take their cue from US's positions, whatever they may really think of how the global Internet must be governed. Similarly, the big Internet business is understandably closely in line with the US. In fact, Google was 'politically' so active during the WCIT that it earned negative notice from many on this account. What may be more difficult to understand however is why the global civil society active in the Internet governance space has such a complete identification with US's position, a favor rarely extended by civil society to the most powerful political entity in the world.

It is a fact that many authoritarian countries were seeking to use the WCIT to increase statist control over the Internet, with many proposals made in this regard. However, towards the end of the WCIT process, all these proposals were rejected and withdrawn. This victory was won. Almost all the civil society that was associated with the WCIT process had a single point agenda, protecting freedom of expression by allowing no global regulation, or norms and principles building, for the Internet, in any kind of global inter-governmental forum. The danger of curtailed freedom of expression is inherent in development of any principles or policy for a communication space. And these dangers indeed must be guarded against. What the concerned global civil society however mostly misses is that there are equally important issues of economic and social justice that are connected with how the Internet is governed. Internet today has become a major factor in global and sub-global distribution of economic, social, cultural and political resources. Its governance therefore has a strong political economy angle. Obviously, it is the developing countries, with the assistance of progressive civil society actor, that have to develop appropriate political economy based positions regarding the global governance of the Internet. In this regard, a summary view that the Internet should be kept entirely free from all and any policy frameworks is not an acceptable proposition.

Internet also needs regulation

A central political economy issue regarding the global governance of the Internet pertains to preserving its nature as a level playing field. One of the main social impacts of the Internet, and the social-relational paradigm that gets build over it, comes from its horizontolisation of communication. This makes for a level playing field for various kinds of political, economic and cultural actors – big and small. We have seen how the Internet has changed citizen-state relationships, even allowed citizens to organize and overthrow despots; how it has changed the economic landscapes removing many kinds of traditional barriers to entry for newcomers; and, how it has produced local culture industries in many parts of the world. The technical feature of the Internet that makes it as a level playing field is called the net neutrality rule. This rule ensures that the carrier (or the telecommunications infrastructure) is neutral to all content on the Internet, or that all content on the Internet is carried in the same manner, with the same priority and quality.

It is this feature of the Internet that, for instance, makes for the website of 'Down to Earth; open at the same speed as that of, say, Shell Corporation. So, you can access public interest views on environment issues as easily, and with global reach, as those of highly-resourced agencies, with likely vested interests. Even an individual, if her views find rapid traction on the web, can stand at the same or higher pedestal as these two mentioned sources of information.

The problem is that the hallowed net neutrality principle had begun to be violated all around the world. Content and application companies are getting into exclusive and priority deals with telecom carriers. If this trend continues, the Internet may soon resemble a multi-channel TV, with the open and public part of the Internet consigned to some dark and dusty by-lanes of cyberspace, as Kirana shops are being pushed into by the Malls. The physical world was always cruelly unequal and unjust. The early egalitarian promise of the Internet, so cherished by us, may also soon be lost.

Protecting the net neutrality principle is in many ways a global challenge. The Internet paradigm itself is inherently global and most of its architectural principles get formed at the global level, largely in the US. National level jurisdictions, especially in developing countries, can be greatly constrained in terms of the policy models that they are able to enforce, if these are not in keeping with global trends. Also, Internet traffic connects at international levels, and the principle of net neutrality must also be respected at these international inter-connection arrangements. It is therefore important that, if the principle of net neutrality, and with it the egalitarian potential of the Internet, is to survive, appropriate principles and policy models for net neutrality are developed at the global level.

Global institutions for global norms

ITU is indeed the right place for developing such principles and policy models for ensuring net neutrality, and addressing other issues pertaining to the carrier layer of the Internet (as against applications and content layers). It is important to note that preserving net neutrality essentially requires regulatory intervention, to force telecom companies to give equal treatment to all contents. But this seems to go against the 'no regulation whatsoever' war-cry of the neoliberal forces, with which the global civil society involved in Internet governance seem to have got co-opted, if sometimes unsuspectingly under the blinding show-lights focused on freedom of expression. Civil society needs to understand how much this over-hyped global campaign for freedom of expression is really the freedom for US based Internet companies to make economic extractions from across the world. Going even beyond the net neutrality issue, these global digital behemoths, mostly monopolies and increasingly, vertically integrated businesses, also need various other kinds of public interest regulation. And the basic principles and overall models of such regulation will have to developed and articulated at the global level. The ITU is one forum for addressing issues related to the infrastructure or carrier layer of the new convergent global communication system. Other global forums may need to address issues arising with respect to application and content layers.

It is hoped that global civil society will take the Dubai fiasco as an opportunity to rethink its role in representing and serving the global public interest, with due, if not disproportionate, regard to the rights and interests of those who are economically and socially disadvantaged. It is time to begin developing a positive agenda for global Internet governance that gives equally importance to social and economic rights of the people as is being given to their civil and political rights, especially to freedom of expression.

Related articles:

The Hypocrisy Threatening the Future of the Internet;

The Great Internet Governance Swindle;

Read the original article in Down To Earth.

Photos © ITU

Opinions voiced by Global Minds do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Global Journal.