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Ed Vaizey

A sticky WCIT

The World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) has just finished its work in Dubai. Before the UK delegation left for the Conference I set out our approach in an interview with Wired magazine.

What’s it all about?

The idea behind WCIT was to revise and update a treaty governing international telecommunications services. These are known as the International Telecommunications Regulations – the ITRs. As one of the UK delegation put it in her own blog, this was a treaty that wasn’t about the internet, but really it was. Dubai

It all harks back to another century, in fact, and as far as telecommunications is concerned, that’s another age – pre-liberalisation, pre-privatisation, before the great boom in mobile telecoms and, of course, before the internet transformed the way we communicate and conduct business. It was concluded in 1988, had never been revised since that time and, to no one’s great surprise, there was much about it that was ripe for revision.
The UK and most developed countries could, in fact, for the most part have lived quite happily without the ITRs. But the position of other governments, particularly those from developing countries, was that they needed these regulations to be able to conduct telecoms business on a secure legal basis and – more to the point – they needed them updated for the 21st century. We accepted that position in good faith and that’s why we sent such a large delegation - a multi-stakeholder team of 25 people drawn from government, business, the academic community and civil society.

Running into trouble

And, to be fair, a lot of progress was made in the two weeks of the conference. Provisions were included on roaming. The provisions of the treaty that deal with charging were modernised – allowing for the old settlements system but explicitly acknowledging the role of competition and commercial agreements. But what the UK team kept running into were proposals to include the internet, content issues, spam and so on – and that’s what ultimately made it impossible to sign the treaty.

Governments know best?

The point is that the internet has grown up outside a model of government control and regulation. That’s not to say that there is no regulation of activity on the internet – a pretty good rule of thumb is if it’s illegal in the real world, chances are that it is illegal in the online world. But the rules governing the way the internet is run – for example which domain names should be permitted, who should run them and so on – have been developed by a community of engineers, business, civil society and governments working together in what is known as the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance. This, though, is in sharp contrast to the approach being advocated in the ITRs where only governments had a voice in the negotiations, and where very few nations involved other stakeholders in the way we did in the UK.

We value a free and open internet

So when it came to the crunch, the revised ITRs, with provisions on security, on spam and with an unacceptable resolution on internet governance was not a treaty that I could let my delegation sign. The UK – together with the US, EU member states and a number of others (55 in total) – could not sign it because we value an open internet too much to see it hampered by excessive regulation.

The WCIT, however, is not the end of the battle – these issues will be debated again in numerous international meetings in the coming months and years. And in those debates we will continue to fight for the approach that we know works – and that is to keep the internet free and open.

Photo by Eugene Kaspersky on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

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