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Assessing the ITU Dubai Conference

In mid-December, delegates from 193 nations gathered in Dubai to develop what was hoped would be a new international framework for regulation of telecommunications throughout the world. Given that the last time the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) had been together formally to address major international telecommunications policy was 1988, much had changed--most notably the rise of the Internet not only as an "information superhighway," but also as a dominant force in the delivery of telecommunications offerings--including voice communications.

But before the conference even began, it was understood that many nations, the U.S. and many EU countries among them, would resist much of what was being proposed in the conference's final document. Ultimately, though there was much lively discussion on a vast array of topics, the hottest issue related only tangentially to the concerns over the "freedom and openness" of the Internet that dominated media coverage in advance of the meeting. In Dubai, the biggest debate involved a definition of "spam." More on that in a minute.

Run-up to the Conference
The ITU is a UN-specialized agency based in Geneva, Switzerland; it is responsible for international policy and coordination in areas of information and communication technologies. The ITU manages the shared global use of the radio spectrum, promotes international cooperation in assigning satellite orbits, works to improve telecommunication infrastructure in the developing world, and assists in the development and coordination of worldwide technical telecommunication and Internet standards.

The treaty had largely been prepared in advance, which is how it came to be understood, going in, that the U.S. and other nations were unlikely to sign the document that was to be produced at the close of the multi-day conference. In addition, the run-up to the conference also saw many in the Internet community expressing concerns that the treaty resulting from the conference could aim to curtail the "free and open Internet" that many of us have come to take for granted.

Those concerns at times threatened to overshadow some legitimate issues that need to be addressed as the Internet continues to mature. Particularly because of the many monumental changes in technology that occurred during the same 24-year period when the ITU didn't meet en masse, there are a number of critically important areas of policy and regulation that required attention at a minimum--and action where possible. However, because of specific national and regional interests, participants were well aware that consensus could be very difficult to achieve.

At the conference's conclusion, a 30-page summary document was produced. The final document, entitled "Final Acts: World Conference on International Telecommunications (DUBAI, 2012)" contains 10 articles addressing specific substantive issues, 2 appendices (relating to accounting and maritime communications) and 5 non-binding resolutions:

* The first resolution includes a proposal containing special measures for developing countries that are landlocked or are small islands, to ensure their access to international optical fiber networks and infrastructure.

* The second recommends that a group study the feasibility of a single, globally harmonized--and recognized--3 digit number for access to emergency services (North Americans use 911, EU countries use 112).

* The third resolution provides for the creation of an international policy center where delegates from member countries can actively participate not only in the discussion, but in policy evolution as well, and where the ITU's Secretary General enables the organization to play an "active and constructive role in the development of broadband."

The third resolution further provides that each nation have an "equal role and responsibility for international Internet governance and for ensuring the stability, security and continuity of the existing Internet and its future development, and of the future Internet." (It's easy to understand how this "equal role" language could cause some of the biggest players at the table to balk, and, in fact, this is where the U.S. delegation had its most dramatic parting of ways with the ITU itself.).

* The fourth resolution contains language proposing a periodic review of International Telecommunication Regulations be conducted more frequently than the 24-year span between the last ITU conference and this most recent one.

* Finally, the last resolution encourages collaboration in resolving both termination and exchange of international telecommunications traffic.

The first sentence of the preamble to the final document acknowledges the right of each sovereign nation to regulate its own telecommunications, however at the same time it also acknowledges the value of an international governing body to "harmonize" international telecommunications operations. This makes eminent sense. However, it's when this generic phrase is boiled down to the actual nitty-gritty of what's to be harmonized that things went south. Additionally, the first sentence of the treaty's Article I begins this way "These Regulations establish general principles..." So, which is it? Regulations or principles?

In fact, these vague platitudes reflect the reality of the situation, where some countries, including the U.S., insist upon control of internal and international telecommunications (including Internet issues) from within, while others, like China and Russia, were hoping to impose their tight controls over Internet and telecommunications practices (and content) on all of the international participants.

Of many concerns that the U.S. delegation had, the issue of freedom of speech was paramount. And now we get to spam. The definition of spam created a huge amount of discord and debate because, as one unnamed commentator quoted by the Washington Post put it, "one man's spam is another man's political speech." The concern was that by regulating spam, the ITU was creating some very significant issues of censorship, and conceivably allowing the ITU to enforce--or attempt to define and enforce--rules regarding content. And this, among other factors, was among the most critical dealbreakers for the U.S., Canada, the UK and many others.

The short summary is this: The U.S., along with Canada, the U.K., Australia and 51 other nations, opted not to sign the agreement, while 89 nations, including Russia and China did. (The list of signatories is available at

The U.S. also objected to any attempt to expand the treaty's scope from the currently addressed public telecommunications networks to any other network, public or private, including ISPs and government systems. Additionally, issues related to network security were also a hot button for the U.S., where its delegation had little interest (or support, for that matter) in allowing an international body to dictate policy and protocols and anything else affecting current network security models and practice.

The most potentially positive outcome is the fact that the group will work to make more frequent attempts to assemble and discuss--if not address--telecommunications, Internet and network security issues and strategies in the coming year. It's unlikely that the amount of change in global internetworking will be as great in the next 24 years as it has been in the last, but maintaining a regular and sustainable forum for such discussion is, to all, a step in the right direction.