The recently held World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai ended in drama, discord and for many, disappointment. Member countries of the UN's International Telecommunications Union (ITU) could not reach consensus on the final wording for the revised International Telecommunications regulations (ITRs). The debate over whether the ITU should have a policy defining role on Internet matters remains unresolved. In the aftermath of WCIT the possibility of global consensus on the future of Internet governance seems even more remote.
The objective of WCIT was to modernise a series of regulations drafted in the pre-internet era of 1988. At the meeting, updates to global telephony rules proved relatively straightforward. By contrast, attempts by some nations to put the internet at the centre of the WCIT agenda proved highly contentious.
The Story of WCIT-12: Map showing official WCIT signatory and non-signatory states. Signatories are in black. Non-signatories are in red. Source: http://www.ipv.sx/wcit/.
At it is conclusion, a total of 89 countries endorsed the new global treaty on telecom regulations, including Barbados, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, China, Russia, and most African and Latin American nations. The new treaty will come into effect on January 1, 2015. But 55 countries did not sign, including Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, Egypt, France, Germany, Japan, Kenya, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.
The number of key states that did not sign is a clear indication of the growing polarization over the future of the Internet. The map painted by signing countries and non-signing countries reflects the new divide in Internet politics. The divide is not of developed and developing countries, nor is it of the connected and the disconnected. The new divide is between countries that value an open Internet, governed under a multi-stakeholder model that has allowed the Internet to flourish, versus countries that want the benefits of the Internet but with tighter controls and increased government authority over its governance.
The unresolved contentions over motive and intent of states, post-WCIT, together with questionable procedures employed to arrive at the revised treaty, have created an atmosphere of distrust. It has also served to further widen the gulf between those who want to maintain the current multi-stakeholder approach for Internet Governance and those advocating for greater UN involvement and state control.
The open camp has taken a principled stance to maintain the integrity of the multi-stakeholder governance model, driven by the Internet user community. The closed camp is being defined by states increasingly concerned about the unprecedented capacity the Internet has to empower citizens, amplify dissenting views and circumvent government control over how and what information is released.
There are real economic considerations at stake. In the Group of 20 countries alone, a Boston Consulting Group study estimated that the internet economy will be worth $4.2 trillion by 2016. The annual growth rate in developing countries is pegged somewhere between 8 to 18 per cent.
There are significant social as well as economic gains for those countries that get Internet governance right. The Internet now reaches over 2 billion persons and it is estimated that over half a million new users connect to the network each day. Preserving the trajectory of the Internet's phenomenal growth is important. But so too is preserving integrity of it massive, positive impact on society. The Internet has ushered in an era of in unprecedented innovation, social empowerment and global connectivity. The loose, bottom-up, inclusive models driving the Internet's technical standards, resource management, interconnections, and content policy have play a major role in its global growth. It would be grossly irresponsible to now undermine the tenants that facilitated the Internet's remarkable success.
Some countries may have unwittingly found themselves on the wrong size of the divide. In signing the revised ITRs, Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, for example, cast their lots with Russia, China, Iran and a host of other regimes with a history of exercising control over citizens' access to information; restricting free-market economics; disregarding citizens privacy rights and enacting repressive laws under the guise of cybersecurity or spam prevention. What should Internet stakeholders in democratic countries that have signed make of their government's intentions? What message does this send stakeholders in these countries who value open, unfiltered, Internet access?
The Internet may have survived the WCIT battle for greater state control over its governance. However, the meeting's outcome leaves many unanswered questions about the real victors and victims in the ongoing war for future of Internet governance.
Bevil Wooding is the Chief Knowledge Officer at Congress WBN, an international non-profit organisation and the Executive Director of BrightPath Foundation, a technology education NGO.