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WCIT-12: The End to the Internet as We Know It?

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The music industry, whose borders were the fixation of content in physical media, has been the most obvious example. They would dearly love it if someone invented an enforcable way to ensure only they could publish audio on the internet. Pure mercantilism. Also, in today's internet, pure fantasy. Failed efforts like ACTA and SOPA are the thrashing swipes of mercantilists in this traditional economy as they resist change to their own control of borders.

And so, this autumn, at WCIT-12, we will see the attempt by the ITU to change the ITRs (International Telecommunications Regulations) so that they can enforce mercantile boarders around sections of the internet. The option has always been there to try to create borders within the Internet—just look at DRM and conditional access in our own sector. But until now there has been no regulatory or government-backed move to enforce these borders. It has been (rightly in my mind) left to the publishers and ISPs to work that out themselves.

But in the run-up to WCIT-12  the premise is being given political weight by Russian president Vladimir Putin (that well know free-marketeer!), and he is driving support from BRIC and other "developing nations," postulating that by centralising reglatory control in the ITU these nations would have more input an control on Internet Governance, and arguing that the current governance by multi-stakeholder process is weighted in favour of Anglo-Saxon European and American stakeholders, and not available to the developing nations and BRIC countries (see http://www.rt.com/news/itu-internet-revolution-russia-386/). This is clearly motivated by BRIC mercantilism and is being disguised as an argument that "NOT doing anything is US/European  mercantilism" – which is clearly twisting the truth when you look at how open the existing multi-stakeholder process is regardless of where it has originated.

The core ITR change proposed at WCIT-12 is the notion that the entire economic of internet content distribution ("A-ha!" I hear you say, "this is why this is important to Streaming Media readers!") is nailed to a principle of "sender pays." The Internet Governance Project has posted the temporary document from the ITU that outlines this proposal.

This model ensures that for large internet companies to reach audiences in (for example) Africa, the company has to pay for the distribution chain from the initial source connectivity right down to the recipient's ISP. If the parties in the chain cannot agree on pricing, then the ITU will dictate this pricing. On the face of it, this looks good for Africa: If YouTube wants to use African internet footprints extensively, it has to pay into the African footprints' infrastructure per byte of content it wants push onto their network. This would, in turn, lead to increased investment into the African internet ,and this fits nicely with the UN's mandates to support developing countries. All sounds cosy right?

Not so fast. This is where I have to get up on my soap box and polticise this. And you will find I am not alone. ISOC, ICANN, and many others—most importantly in my mind Vint Cerf (the co-creator of the internet)—are also doing everything they can to avoid this ITU strategy beign swept in and legislated by the UN.

And you must take part too or your sector is just about to change, as is the entire internet.

Why WCIT-12 Matters to You

Let me explain why: Since those of you in the U.S. effectively have a "sender pays" policy in place already (because your network peerings which create the internet are privately negotiated between ISPs), you may not think this is going to make a difference. At the moment, however, when you distribute content to Europe or Asia you connect your international networks at public peering points, where data is exchanged byte for byte rather than byte for buck. Under the proposed ITU changes, the cost of reaching out into the rest of the world will suddenly become tariffed. And this will move up the food chain, massively increasing the cost of doing business on the internet. Not only that, but all the businesses that rely on un-tariffed content delivery will have to move to a paid model—not very good for all the .orgs out there, nor for those small .coms that are already struggling to justfiy the cost of a web presence, let alone having to face premium costs if Africans start using their services.

In fact, unless there is a return on the investment into the cost of content distribution into Africa, i should imagine that far from subsidising the explansion of the Internet infrastructure in Africa, we will see most companies simply geoblock access for these fledgling economies, and focus on their established ones more aggressively.

Oh, how great that will be for the developing countries....

Oh, and guess what: Those mercantile operators who want Africa as their captive walled garden will then have a monopoly, and Africa will develop only at the pace that that monopoly wants, with only the internet services that the operators "allow."

The "sender pays" model gets even more complicated when you try to work out who the sender is. Imagine if I publish an article in Streaming Media magazine that touches a nerve and goes viral." Today Streaming Media will have a delivery cost to bear, but that is fairly indifferent to whether it's 20,000 US readers or 20,000 African readers taking it viral. It is managed and therefore in the interests of the magazine for the story to go viral.

Once it costs more for the story to go viral in Africa than in the U.S., Streaming Media will manage its delivery to prevent the story reaching Africa to avoid incurring uncontrolled costs (or, more to the point, costs controlled by the ITU). Streaming Media will most likely throttle or kill international access in these expensive "fringe" markets.

What then happens if someone then shares the story on Facebook? Does Facebook pay, or does the fact that the content has been originated at Streaming Media mean Streaming Media pays? What if Streaming Media didn't want it to be shared "at their cost" by a third party? And how is this going to be technically enforced? Would each site, or even each online asset, need a clear metadata describing the distribution permissions? Ouch!

I can see that turn into a great new cyberwarfare game: Destroy your competition by simply downloading all their content as much as you possibly can until they run out of money.

Also implicit in the ITU changes to the ITRs are a number of other changes that are highly unpalatable, including the regulatory "authority" to mandate changes by virtue of being the "authority."

The fact is that I cannot even see all the ITU members agreeing to this. But only the government members get a vote: The 700 private companies and research institutions that are members are not invited to vote. So I can see the 193 Governments rubbing their hands and thinking "Great, we are going to be given control" and their sweaty palms giving their white-cats dreadlocks, but I can't see all six of the U.S.-based Tier 1 operators (out of only 12 globally) accepting that the UN can dictate how they operate their networks. I can’t see many of todays internet stakeholders accepting the ITU as their regulator either.

Accordingly, even if the ITU regulation is passed it will create a fragmentation of the Internet: the ITU internet and the public internet, and walls will exist between them. And this will fundamentally change the internet—your internet—from being apolitical to being a device of mercantilsm.

Video and audio publishers, and those involved in the workflow of creating and distributing large volumes of high-bandwidth traffic online: It is vital that you understand this move, and how, if it is quetly swept in, it could have significant and adverse effects on your business, your cutsomers, and even on your own personal internet use.

One of the things I believe that is most important to do is to raise awareness of this, and to ensure that the ITU's government members do not, under any circumstances, allow the ITU to alter the ITRs in this way without much wider due consultation. Contact the ITU and register your opposition to the proposed changes to the Internet Telecommunications Regulations, and urge your elected representatives to do the same. Share this article (while it's still cheap to do so), write about it on your blog; make sure your voice is heard.

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