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ITU Chief Calls Fears Of The "UN Takeover" Of The Internet "Frankly Ridiculous"

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Thursday, June 7 2012

ITU Secretary-General Dr. Hamadoun I. Touré Photo: Flickr/ITU

The chief of the United Nations' special telecom agency on Wednesday called recent characterizations of its negotiation process as an attempt by the agency to "take over" the Internet "frankly ridiculous."

The U.N.'s International Telecommunications Union's Secretary-General Dr. Hamadoun I. Touré delivered a speech to his staff in Geneva, Switzerland Wednesday in an apparent attempt to reframe the basis of the long-running international conversation about how best to expand and build upon the broadband Internet infrastructure as it grows up.

U.S. lawmakers and some policy wonks suggest that U.N. member countries with views about Internet freedom divergent from the U.S. State Department's — like Russia and China — are pushing for greater international regulation of the Internet. This view holds that the ITU would become the means for these countries to exert more influence on Internet infrastructure and governance.

On Wednesday, Touré told his staff: "The first point is that we are not about to take over the Internet -- that suggestion is frankly ridiculous."

"We are not going to send in the blue helmets of the U.N. peacekeepers to police [Internet exchange providers]! And we are certainly not ready to make a grab for global domination," he said. "So last week's debates about the U.N. taking over Internet Governance were both ridiculous and most unfortunate."

It's just been difficult to get a handle on what's true and what's hyperbole because not much documentary evidence is available to outline the proposals in the works. Diplomats are expected to convene at a meeting in Dubai in December to renegotiate the international telecommunications connection agreements under which the old voice networks operate. Those agreements, unchanged since 1988, don't really cover the Internet.

Here's whats actually happening. Internet traffic gets from one end of the world to the other because computers along the way use common sets of rules and protocols to help find the fastest route, like this:

That happens outside agreements made at the ITU, and accounts for an ever-increasing amount of the traffic that's taking up capacity on global telecommunications networks. Meanwhile, agreements made through the ITU among 178 member countries influence how telcos in one country do business with telcos in the other to connect a phone call. So while Internet infrastructure companies occasionally pay one another — when Telco One sends Telco Two more traffic than Telco Two sends to Telco One, for example — the framework for doing this internationally is not as cut and dry.

Infrastructure providers in developing countries are pushing for new ITU agreements that would bring more of that structure to international Internet infrastructure, helping them cash in on the traffic passing over their networks, says Milton Mueller, author of "Networks and States," a book about global Internet governance and a professor at Syracuse University.

Mueller agrees with Touré that the consequences are being overblown. But, he says, some proposals under consideration in the process are "bad" and "destructive."

"The Internet is taking over telecommunications," he said. "All kinds of services are converging on the Internet protocol. You make money in this business by being involved in Internet-based businesses, and anybody who is sitting around not providing Internet services and is just providing traditional infrastructure has to deal with this."

But billing for data traffic on the Internet the same as voice traffic would be a "disaster" for the Internet.

"So much of what happens on the Internet isn't based on how many bits flow in one direction," he said.

The result of some of the proposals could end up costing U.S. telecom companies and applications-layer companies like Google huge amounts, if proposals to treat Internet traffic like voice calls were ratified.

"When Vint Cerf said that this is the greatest threat to the Internet since its inception, I think that was definitely overblown," Mueller said.

"This is attributing enormous power to the ITU which it doesn't have, and ignoring the fact that the real power lies with the national governments," Mueller continued, "and that some national governments already do the bad things that they're talking about."