WCIT and the Tower of Babel
A key reason for the heated debate in relation to the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs) at the next World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) is the problem that different parties are talking about different elements while using the same words.
In the USA the internet is regarded as an ‘information service’ (and for regulatory purposes includes telecoms + content). This level of regulation keeps the ‘intertwined’ internet separate from other telecoms services in the country.
In the developed world outside the USA, however, the two are not integrated and from a government policy point of view the only element that is part of telecoms regulations is the infrastructure. This means that the infrastructure used for the internet is simply telecoms infrastructure and that, as such, it forms part of the overall telecoms infrastructure environment and falls under the county’s telecoms regulatory regime – or for that matter under international telecoms regulations.
BuddeComm has always strongly opposed the American interpretation because it leads to a lack of competition, to broadband monopolies or duopolies and to the well-known problems of net neutrality; which are all far more prominent in the USA than in any other developed country.
Whatever rules apply to telecoms, very strong opposition exists – and not just from the USA – to any regulation that would increase the price of infrastructure usage. Such regulations would be completely unnecessary if the telcos were prepared to transform their organisation to better face the challenges and opportunities of the digital economy.
For this reason it is important to recognise the difference in interpretation between the USA and the rest of the world. Only when infrastructure is treated separately from services can a discussion take place about whether, and in what way, the burden of infrastructure investments can be solved.
Unfortunately this is only one part of WCIT’s Tower of Babel. When addressing international regulations regarding the internet each party is using its own interpretation in a different way – and sometimes the same party will use different interpretations for different parts of the internet. This particularly relates to governments. When they address the infrastructure elements as mentioned above they will perceive and interpret the internet as infrastructure. When they want to address cultural elements that they want to protect, or content they want to ban, they talk about content.
When they address intellectual property (also, confusingly, called IP) they use language put in front of them by the lawyers of copyright holders; legislation, language and concepts dating back to the 17th century.
The internet, however, suddenly becomes national interest if the discussion relates to cybercrime and cyber warfare.
It is hard not to conclude that some of the comments and positions taken in the WCIT debate are to some degree disingenuous. By creating ‘fear, uncertainty and doubt’ parties are trying to improve their bargaining position. This is a very typical occurrence in a monopolistic market and the telcos have long been masters of such behaviour.
It would, of course, be far more productive if the parties involved were prepared to base their position on a more mature and well-informed state of affairs – eg, the reality of the digital economy and the importance of infrastructure as a national utility that will deliver social and economic benefits beyond telco profits. But sadly they believe that to take such an informed approach would place them in a weaker negotiating position.
The best outcome for the WCIT will be a clarification of language, clearly separating the various elements, putting fences around them, and making decisions as to who is going to discuss what – and also, importantly, once this clarification is established, what can be organised nationally and what needs to be addressed internationally. The ITU should take a leadership role in this as it is the international body that fully understands all the different elements of the internet and has a very clear view of the future, which is reflected in the ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission for Digital Development. It could play a key role in assisting its member states to understand the different issues that need to be addressed in the transformation of the industry and how to best address each one of them.
Only when that is done can decisions be made, and can proper international telecommunications regulation take place.
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