Thanks to TLFers Jerry Brito and Eli Dourado, and the anonymous individual who leaked a key planning document for the International Telecommunication Union’s World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) on Jerry and Eli’s inspired WCITLeaks.org site, we now have a clearer view of what a handful of regimes hope to accomplish at WCIT, scheduled for December in Dubai, U.A.E.
Although there is some danger of oversimplification, essentially a number of member states in the ITU, an arm of the United Nations, are pushing for an international treaty that will give their governments a much more powerful role in the architecture of the Internet and economics of the cross-border interconnection. Dispensing with the fancy words, it represents a desperate, last ditch effort by several authoritarian nations to regain control of their national telecommunications infrastructure and operations
A little history may help. Until the 1990s, the U.S. was the only country where telephone companies were owned by private investors. Even then, from AT&T and GTE on down, they were government-sanctioned monopolies. Just about everywhere else, including western democracies such as the U.K, France and Germany, the phone company was a state-owned monopoly. Its president generally reported to the Minster of Telecommunications.
Since most phone companies were large state agencies, the ITU, as a UN organization, could wield a lot of clout in terms of telecom standards, policy and governance–and indeed that was the case for much of the last half of the 20th century. That changed, for nations as much as the ITU, with the advent of privatization and the introduction of wireless technology. In a policy change that directly connects to these very issues here, just about every country in the world embarked on full or partial telecom privatization and, moreover, allowed at least one private company to build wireless telecom infrastructure. As ITU membership was reserved for governments, not enterprises, the ITU’s political influence as a global standards and policy agency has since diminished greatly. Add to that concurrent emergence of the Internet, which changed the fundamental architecture and cost of public communications from a capital-intensive hierarchical mechanism to inexpensive peer-to-peer connections and the stage was set for today’s environment where every smartphone owner is a reporter and videographer. Telecommunications, once part of the commanding heights of government control, was decentralized down to street level.
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