Originally Published 2012-12-18 00:00:00 Published on Dec 18, 2012
The ruckus at WCIT is all about the cosy relationship between governments, big businesses and commerce and not about Internet freedom.
A convenient handmaiden called freedom
Palghar, Dubai and Geneva are literally and metaphorically worlds apart. Yet they are united by an ephemeral and nebulous notion of freedom that Internet seemingly promises. For Shaheen Dhada her Facebook post about Mumbai's grinding halt, ostensibly to pay homage to the departed Bal Thackeray, brought her uncomfortably close to how that freedom's inherent elasticity can, seemingly at will, be tightened enough to form a noose. For the representatives of the 193 countries, who have gathered at Dubai under the aegis of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), apparently to figure out how to make broadband accessible to the developing world, that freedom somehow inexorably leads to pointed discussions about the proposed changes to the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITR). For the policymakers of ITU located in the cool climes of Geneva, ideas of freedom have been invariably narrowed down to technical standards, global use of radio spectrum and assigning satellite orbits.

It's hardly surprising then that the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) being held in Dubai from December 3-14 is predominantly seen by many as an attempt to subvert this nebulous idea of freedom that the Internet so vividly paints. The International Telecommunications Regulations were formulated at a time, in 1988, when Internet had not even started taking baby steps. In a sense, revisiting the rules and regulations seems to be a legitimate exercise. In a lot of ways it is, considering how Internet and digital devices have transformed our lives. Yet just the possibility of such an exercise has got governments, big businesses and civil society groups, normally lined against each other, to close ranks so much that they are sounding and behaving alike. The key argument, with slight variations, is that the freedom of the Internet is under threat. Is that really the case?

The ITU, to be brutally honest, is an obscure body of the United Nations with practically no real powers to control the Internet. Here, it is necessary to place the ITU in perspective. When it was formed in 1865 it was called the International Telegraph Union. The vey nature and structure of institutions, which are hierarchically organised and hence heavy-footed, and technologies, which are driven by social need and market forces and hence nimble and fast, make it an unequal race. An institution will always play catch up to technology. The ITU is no different. It is a body that sets standards for governing all forms of radio, television and telephone, including mobile phone, communication. In short, the body has no control over innovation, technology or the way in which it's used or will be used. Moreover, it's also not like the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), which can fine people or organisations. The ITU does not have the power to be a global cop. It cannot take over the Internet; a bogey successfully floated by many.

But the ITU can set up country codes for telecom service providers. If India has +91 calling code, the United States has a +7 it is due to ITU. The organisation also regulates the orbits of communication satellites. The ITU derives a lot of its enforcement heft from the inescapable reality that global telecommunications requires coordination between countries, and hence international agreements. The ITU, to use a brick and mortar analogy, is the post-master general of the telecommunications world. It ensures that calls, like letters, reach the right address. But there is a critical caveat. The rules of ITU are enforceable only up to a point as decided by each member state. Theoretically, then, it means that a member state may decide not to enforce any of the rules and the ITU cannot do anything about it.

The current bogey of a threat to Internet freedom emerged from certain leaked position papers of the Russian delegation that wanted the ITU to change the regulations so as to allow each member state the power to regulate the Internet in a way they deem fit within their national boundaries. China and India have also taken the same position. Shaheen Dhada has already seen what Section 66 (A) of the Indian Information Technology Act can do. A lot of countries want ITU to endorse such an approach. The United States, however, wants to continue with things as they are. And that's where the rubber meets the road. For all the cymbals and trumpets and the song and dance about defending the freedom of the Internet, the point is that countries can and will do everything in their powers to take control of the Internet. With or without ITU.

The real issue, and consequently the real danger, is something that all of us consistently overlook -- data. Essentially what the 193 member-countries and some 700 odd telecommunications companies, who do not have voting rights, are discussing is whether transmission of data should be considered on the same lines as that of transmission of voice. There is a certain kind of logic to such a thought. Even though Internet and data have been offered as separate services from telephone service, they often use the same fibre optic cable networks, which do not distinguish between voice and data traffic. Since the United States has been a dominant telecommunications player, as also an Internet player both in terms of technology and regulatory institutions, such a lack of distinction has helped evolve sustainable business models within the US. The nature of digital business requires it be global, so when someone sitting in Mumbai makes a purchase in Amazon.com, the US benefits from it right from electronic gateway payment receipts to the tax that Amazon.com pays to the American government. The US, quite obviously, does not want this cosy arrangement to change.

A lot of emerging countries, mainly Russia, China and India, have wizened up to this arrangement and want a greater control over Internet. Digital platforms are going to be the primary bedrock for innovative business models. A greater control over technologies, platforms, gateways and data gives governments the opportunity to ride the next big economic wave and leverage it to their revenue needs and requirements. But an immediate objective of several countries is no doubt a tighter control over what is being said on the Internet. Vint Cerf, co-creator of the TCP/IP, is right when says, "Some proposals could allow governments to justify the censorship of legitimate speech, or even cut off Internet access in their countries."But Cerf is also vice-president and Chief Internet Evangelist of Google and that's where the commercial angle comes in.

There are two fundamental models, one where the recipient pays and another where the sender pays. Today data is billed like water and electricity. The customer pays for the amount of water or electricity used. Internet service providers charge their subscribers for the amount of data transmitted and do not keep a track of who sent each data packet. However, voice calls are like postage parcels. Here the sender pay, more as the distance increases. What has got everyone at WCIT up in arms is a proposal by the European Telecommunications Network Operators Association, which is a group of 38 national telephone companies, that wants national regulators to switch to a 'sender pays' data billing model. If such a model comes into effect in all the countries, or even in some countries, it hits the revenues and the bottomline of companies like Google and Amazon, which sends trillions of bytes of data every day. Of course, the US government also gets affected. The danger is not to freedom. The real danger is who pays for the transmission of data.

Milton Mueller, who is one of the founders of Internet Governance Project, sums it up quite beautifully when he says, "The battle is whether information services and Internet interconnection will continue to be deregulated and privately negotiated as they currently are. The alternative is whether national governments will try to make them more like the telephone charging regime, which was often manipulated to protect national monopolies."Freedom has always been a convenient handmaiden of governments, big businesses and civil society organisations, each one using it to advance their own objectives and interests. The sad part is that it bins the adage that you cannot fool all the people all the time. It seems that you can, and with some ease.

(The writer is a Visiting Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. He is also is a National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI) Fellow)

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