In another blog post, I put the International Telecommunication Union’s WCIT into perspective. I ended that discussion with a question that no one else seems to be asking: should there be International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) at all? Why do we need them?
I don’t think we do need sector-specific international regulations. I think they can cause more trouble than benefit. To briefly explain why, I noted that every country has its own national regulations regarding interconnection, privacy, antitrust, consumer protection, and so on. Compatibility across platforms and services is much easier technically than it was in the 1930s and before, and tends to get worked out in the market through a variety of bridging technologies and nongovernmental standards forums. International telecommunications is a form of trade in services, and the WTO agreements already provide a sufficient regulatory basis for foreign or multinational providers to enter national markets and offer transnational services. Though not all countries are members of WTO, membership can be expanded and bilateral or regional agreements can supplement it.
Imagine my surprise when someone informed me that the Europeans were calling for the abrogation of the ITRs for exactly those reasons. Apparently they defended that position for years. But the European drive to get rid of the ITRs was opposed and eventually blocked by — wait for it — the United States of America! The US, I am told, argued that the existing treaty was essential because most of the world’s international communications were regulated by it.
That puts a dramatically new spin on the US’s current campaign to fend off an ITU “takeover” of the Internet. If revision of the ITRs are such a threat to the Internet, why did the US insist on retaining them? If the ITRs are retained, it is inevitable that they would have to be updated and revised. and yet now, the US government is warning us that the revision process poses a major threat to the independence and freedom of the Internet. Something is wrong with this picture.
Most of my information about this is second-hand, from sources that want to remain off the record. But there is proof that the US has defended the importance of the ITRs in an ITU list of documents that can be viewed here. There, in a depository of an ITU expert group that was preparing the grounds for the WCIT, one finds a document submitted by the US entitled the “Continued Critical Role of the ITRs.” Now if you click on the link that I have mischievously placed to that document, you will be taken to a closed, login-required page; before you can read that document, you have to be a TIES member. In other words, this is yet another example of the closed nature of the ITU process. There is another set of papers here that would be of interest in understanding why we even have the ITRs. But they, too, are locked inside TIES.
And that means, this is a job for WCITleaks! The U.S. government should release this document, and if it doesn’t, inside whistleblowers and other people with access to a TIES account need to leak it to us.