What WCIT is and Why it Matters

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Just a month ago, I was invited to attend the Governance Forum (IGF) in Baku Azerbaijan. Digressing, those wondering why the choice of venue within an authoritarian state and in a relatively unknown corner of this world, you are not alone in questioning this premise.

This article explains it all. In Baku one ominous subject that was being given an impassioned focus and was fiercely debated by representatives from , civil society,the private sector and Internet users was the World Conference on International Telecommunications ( pronounced as WICKIT).

WCIT Logo

WCIT commenced yesterday in Dubai and will run up to December 14th. It is a meeting of governments for governments convened by the International Telecommunications Union (). An aside the is a specialised UN agency established in 1865 (80 years before the foundation of the UN) and it is the oldest existing international inter-governmental organisation in the world. The basically allocates and coordinates satellite orbits, the use of radio frequency spectrum (including GSM, GPRS) and also develops technical standards to improve interconnectivity. The goal of the meeting in Dubai is to review and amend a treaty known as the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs) and hence bring the Internet and its governance under the regime.

Well so what? Isn’t this what a UN organisation is supposed to do; to set standards, talk to governments and ensure seamless connectivity? And why can’t a telecommunications agency of the UN be allowed to manage data networks and the web?

The problem is that the Internet unlike its predecessors (if it had any!) did not fall under the broad categories of telecommunications regulated by ITU member states. It is a far more sophisticated network that has evolved organically with very little government intervention.The ITRs were last reviewed in 1988 in Melbourne Australia under an anachronistically named summit the World Administrative Telegraphy and Telephone Conference (WATTC). Back then state monopolies  dominated the telecommunications sector and as such governments needed guidelines for cross-border tariffs, termination charges, interconnection and inter-operability standards. Then, the Internet didn’t make bleep under the ITU radar.

Today the digital landscape has drastically and ineluctably changed, the Internet is a cornerstone and the central nervous system of the global economy, information sharing, innovation and collaboration. It has superseded telephony networks conventionally under the ITU mandate with applications like Skype rendering traditional telcos a relic of an antediluvian era. The Internet has been successful because of a combination of factors.

Its open architecture and standards help engineers to create robust and scalable networks that can support an astronomical number of users and devices – think IPv6. Its end-to-end principle allows for a home-brew geek to develop an app without giving consideration to the underlying complex network topology. Its grassroots based bottom-up approach to growth, allows for anyone including granny to get online using a relatively inexpensive device like a browser enabled feature phone. Lastly, unlike phone networks, its decentralised control ensures that there is no single authority or entity that can arbitrarily shut it down.

In essence the meteoric success of the Internet is attested to the end-user who has contributed and enabled the Internet to evolve to the technological tour de force of our time. This begs the question; Why then should men and women clad in suits and ties having very little grasp of the Internet ecosystem decide what is best for you?

UN ICT Task Force MeetingUN ICT Task Force Meeting

Many have expressed grave concerns that the ITU under the pretext of the ITRs is seeking to flex its muscles in an area that has been outside its scope. There have been several proposals floated by countries that have questionable human rights records and are arguably the biggest supporters of the ITU that would, legitimise censorship, tout broader surveillance of user online activities and tax Internet usage. These proposals are camouflaged under very nebulous terms like ‘national security’, ‘access’, ‘cybercrime’ and ‘child safety’ to name but a few. If in a parallel universe, regimes like Syria’s Assad had their way with such proposals we wouldn’t have Google, Facebook, Twitter or the next big killer app.

On the other hand the ITRs do not have teeth and cannot be enforced by the ITU. Nevertheless, all it would require is a few powerful states to be given the green light to enforce an amended treaty with questionable provisions and many others will be coerced to abide.

What is Kenya’s Position?

Within the stakeholder community, the Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANET)  held discussions to the lead up to the Dubai conference during the Kenya IGF in July and the Laico Regency meeting in November and have published this report.

Plaudits should be given to the stakeholders within the ICT industry, civil society and the Internet community who have rendered their views to the government delegation representing Kenya in WCIT. The CCK should be commended for seeking public consultations prior to the meeting.

There was strong support from stakeholders that the Internet should remain open and free from undue government interference and regulation. There was also a refusal to endorse the African Common Proposal a document much in line with the views of monied telco lobbyists who want to give the ITU greater berth.

It is also encouraging to note that the Permanent Secretary Dr Bidange Ndemo has publicly opposed reviewing the ITRs as delineated in this article.

However because of the opacity of WCIT nobody can clearly ascertain that during closed door meetings some officials wouldn’t  be cajoled by some deep pocketed interests to accede to contrary proposals. This indeed will be really wicked!

Paul Muchene is the iHub Network Lead and a Fellow of the Internet Society.

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