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

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Heard of WCIT-12?

No? (It doesnt count if you only just Googled it.)

Then it's high time you did. Frankly it doesn't matter what you do for a job; if you use the internet this topic is important.

I asked about at the CDN World Forum last month, and only two people had heard of WCIT12. Scary.

By virtue of reading this article you are likely to be an internet user at the very least. Not only that, but you are likely to be involved in making content and delivering it online.

Assuming that is the case, then you need to know about WCIT-12. It`s got the potential to change the way your world works after December 2012, unless there is a unified global voice that picks up the topic and speaks against it.

What Is WCIT-12?

WCIT is the World Congress of Information Technology. It is a congress organised by the UN's telecommunication agency, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU)—the people who put the "H" in H.264. The ITU has been around in one form or another since 1865, becoming a UN Agency in 1949. It is one of the most established and traditionally highly respected telecommunications bodies.

This December, at its forthcoming World Conference on International Telecommunications  (WCIT-12) event in Dubai, the ITU will attempt to position itself as the regulator of the Internet. Oh yes. You read that right.

If you read their own webpage, it doesn’t read like that. No, it looks like an inviting 3-day conference for geeks and policy makers to "techjam" a few interesting ideas as a collective and enjoy each other's company.

But behind the scenes is a small butterfly wing's flap that is going to cause a hurricane across the landscape of the internet shortly after.

Am I getting hyped up about nothing? Is this a tempest in a teapot? Only those who are standing to gain from the outcome would argue so. And they are small minority (in terms of the global stakeholder interest group of internet users): governments and commercial publishers. The rest of the world faces losing the free-market opportunity that has evolved from the internet's open and multi-stakeholder policy directives since its evolution so that a few companies and governments can enforce their interests.

Who Controls the Internet?

Before we take a detailed look at what that wing flap may be, here's some background. Here's Syracuse University School of Information Studies professor Milton Mueller 's succinct analysis, originally posted at the Internet Governance Project website:

"More than 50 years ago, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission decided that basic telecommunications (which in the 1960s-70s was dominated by the AT&T monopoly) needed to be strictly regulated, while “enhanced” services (i.e., the emerging networked computer services industry that relied on the public telephone network) needed to be opened up and deregulated. To facilitate this policy goal, the FCC created a regulatory distinction between 'basic' and 'enhanced' services. Telecommunication was straight transmission of signals while 'enhanced service' added some 'information processing' to telecommunications transmission."

At that time traditional telecommunication (the Layer 1 physical and Layer 2 data link of the OSI model of data communications) was provided by highly restrictive, protected and usually state-owned monopolies known as PTTs (postal, telephone, and telegraph monopolies). By placing information services in a separate regulatory/legal category, information service providers could (when other countries agreed) ride unmolested on that telecommunications infrastructure, without being subject to all the entry restrictions and gatekeeping regulations of the telephone companies and/or their governments. During the 1980s and 1990s, many countries were more than happy to open up that tiny “information services” market a bit in exchange for continued protection of their gigantic voice telephony markets from foreign competition.

The separation of “telecommunications” and “information services” paved the way for an open, economically, and politically free internet. Internet protocol was basically software, and thus could be considered an “information processing” or “enhanced” service. And so when the internet went viral in the early 1990s, it spread like rhizomes into the global path cleared for it by the international deregulation of information services."

It was this macro-economic force that paved the way for the Internet. Data was seen as low value, and so it was possible to send data from point-to-point on the planet at flat rates that didnt vary with the distance or destination of the transfer. And, as we all know, the wonder of the internet is that i can look at a U.S. or a Chinese website and it doesnt cost me any more than looking at a local UK one.

As the internet has scaled up, however, technologies like VoIP have taken off like wildfire,so operators like Skype have flourished,  to the direct detriment of the ITU members' previously-valuable voice traffic. With voice communications today essentially a zero margin game, the ITU members are now trying to renegotiate the distinction between telecommunications and information services to work out how to get back to a position where they can get profit out of data, having "given it away" two decades ago.

There is another key area to the plot that we must visit to get a full picture: Internet Governance (IG). As the Internet has evolved a variety of actors have emerged who have, to date, collectively provided a variety of forums focused on key aspects of IG. The Internet Society's (ISOC) Ecosystem shows clearly both the sheer number of stakeholder groups and also the decentralization and interdependence/relationship structures. (See page 4 of the PDF at the link above; unfortunately, the graphic is too low-res to reproduce successfully here.)

As can be seen there are a number of "domains" of issues and a large number of groups and actors that focus on each these, and many of these groups overlap. The reason they overlap is because of a more fundamental fact: to date there has been no single central Internet Governance body, and in the same way the internet was designed without a single point of failure, Internet Governance has evolved this far without a single point of Governance. This is not least because none of the evolved groups would accept the authority of any other over its dominion. While all the groups that partake in IG have evolved with different membership schemes and different ways of acheiving consensus, the collective of groups have also had to acheive consensus as a multi-stakeholder agreement between all the groups, and this effective unanimouty has so far been quite effective in stimulating the Internet to grow.

However... yep there had to be a however...

The Threat of Internet Mercantilism

Within this multi-stake holder process are a subset of players who traditionally would have been very profitable, powerful, or influential in either telecoms, publishing, or social governance and control of publically consumed media channels. These players have been disintermediated and disempowered by the arrival and very nature of the internet, becoming unable to operate nearly as successfully in the free market of today's internet as they had in the past, and finding themselves unable to adapt to a market and a world that is not mercantile by nature. That word—mercantile—is key to understanding the threat the internet now faces.

The explosive, internet-powered, free market has been the most important influence on the modern communications renaissance and social transformation we are experiencing—from the Arab Spring to collaborative consumerism, resource management, and new economic models. The individual has, in the past two decades, and for the first time in human history, entered a level playing field with corporate and government groups in many ways. From the ability to promote an idea to the ability to access resources, technology has enabled all voices to be heard, not just those who could afford propaganda.

Mercantilism, which essentially is the process of installing defensible boundaries through which trade models can be enforced, is a legacy of empire building: Fencing groups to enforce taxable economics and trade, and all for the enforcers' gain. It is the polar opposite of a free market. Organisations defined as "traditional" (by members of  the "new" internet economy) are now threatened as their traditional geopolitical borders have become meaningless.

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