How will the ITU conference affect the Internet in Africa?

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is currently locked in a series of meetings in Dubai, UAE, where it aims thrash out a number of issues surrounding the Internet and how this resource is being used globally.

Dr. Hamadoun Touré, Secretary General of the International Telecommunication Union (image: ITU)

One of the the biggest talking points on the agenda for the 18th World Congress on Information Technology (WCIT 2012) is whether the Internet needs more stringent regulation.

Russia, China, Egypt, Sudan and several other nations tabled a draft proposal dated 5 December at the conference, in which they outline plans aimed at bringing the internet under the control of the ITU. The proposal has garnered a lot of publicity (on Tuesday it came to light that the proposal had been withdrawn).

In the preamble of the draft proposal it stated that “While the sovereign right of each State to regulate its telecommunications is fully recognized, the provisions of the present International Telecommunication Regulations (hereinafter “Regulations”) complement the Constitution and Convention of the International Telecommunication Union, with a view to attaining the purposes of the International Telecommunication Union in promoting the development of telecommunication services and their most efficient operation while harmonizing the development of facilities for worldwide telecommunications.”

But Hamadoun Toure, ITU secretary general stressed that the conference could not assign powers to the ITU. “This conference cannot assign the ITU with regulatory powers. Despite repeating this many times, it seems the message is simply not getting through,” Toure said.

As part of the proposal by Russia and China, the proponents stressed the need for multinational control over the Internet, and also called for a multinational approach to the internet numbering and naming system. The current numbering and naming system is administered by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) under contract with the U.S. government.

Article 3A.3 of the draft proposal states that “Member States shall have the sovereign right to establish and implement public policy, including international policy, on matters of Internet governance and to regulate the national Internet segment, as well as the activities within their territory of operating agencies providing Internet access or carrying Internet traffic.”

In layman’s terms, it would give any Member State (country) the power to regulate what content is created, distributed and accessed on the internet – and they would have the full backing of the ITU to do so. Countries would be given the freedom to create their own public policy- so no two nations would have the same structures in place.

The question remains:  even though the draft proposal has been withdrawn, can Russia and China strong-arm other nations  into signing an agreement with the ITU to oversee the regulation of the internet and ratifying the proposal?  If so, how will this affect Internet usage across the world, and specifically Africa?

“At this point there will be very little impact on Africa from any regulation of this type. It will take a long time to filter through if it ever does come into force. The main reason is that the Internet is very much consumed in Africa and not created. Another key factor is that use of the Internet in Africa is still small in global terms,” Steven Ambrose, Managing Director of Strategy Worx Consulting Analysis and Research, told IT News Africa.

While the Internet has two definitive parts to it – the everyday, clean Internet; and the seedy underbelly thereof, Ambrose is of the opinion that it cannot be governed. “The Internet is fundamentally ungovernable. At its core it is a self-healing distributed interconnected platform.”

But he does offer a few examples of how it might be regulated. “There are a few comprehensive ways the Internet can be regulated, one example is the Internet in China. But even in China, and in fact anywhere , if any significant restrictions are placed on the general use of the Internet, the system (read users of the Internet)  will find ways to subvert any regulation and effectively make any such regulation of little effect and impact.”

Analyst Arthur Goldstuck, Managing Director of World Wide Worx, added that the only form of regulation the Internet needs is regulation that protects it from the limitations that narrow commercial and political interests forced on it.

But what other alternatives are there for regulation, other than the ITU? Goldstuck mentioned that the Internet Society ought to play a bigger role. “The Internet Society has always been the voice of reason, along with the likes of the W3 Consortium and other non-partisan entities that could form a non-aligned global body with a greater interest in freedom than in control,” he told IT News Africa.

Ambrose added that the problem is not with finding alternatives to regulation, but to prevent governments from gaining too much power. “The ITU’s mandate is essentially technical and from that standpoint regulation of protocol and other technical factors that will allow the Internet to operate more efficiently are always welcome. The fear is that governments will get too much power over the creation and dissemination of information over the Internet. All such governments’ attempts to date, even in especially repressive regimes, such as during the Arab spring revolution in Egypt- ultimately failed, as there will always be ways of bypassing or circumventing any such restrictions.”

But the outcomes of WCIT 2012 could also be beneficial to combatting cybercrime, but more than simple regulation will be needed. “The ITU sponsored conference should create responsible guidelines and cooperation amongst governments, to allow fast effective reaction to cybercrime. No manner of regulation, apart from the draconian shift back to pre-Internet communication, will have any effect on cybercrime. The only way to fight such crime is to take it on in the same environment it was created, and to react in a global coordinated manner, with existing international crime fighting bodies such as Interpol, in order to stay one step ahead of organised crime syndicates,” Ambrose said.

Goldstuck concluded by saying that whatever decision the ITU eventually decides upon, the outcome will not be good for Africa.

“The ITU is considering two retrogressive steps, one related to free access to content and one to freedom within content. On freedom within content, the changes would give repressive regimes, particularly those in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Russia, greater licence to limit the rights to open communication. On a free access level, it could mean that the cost of accessing content could become prohibitive to most users across Africa.”

For Ambrose, the truly effective way to govern or regulate the Internet, is to shut it down completely, which will not be beneficial to anybody. “The Internet has become a huge unregulatable monster and for many governments the Internet and access coupled with freedom of information flow, will always be seen as a danger to effective governance. The only truly effective way to regulate and control the Internet is to shut it down, and as we saw in the Arab Spring uprisings, this option only worked for a very short while.”

Charlie Fripp – Consumer Tech editor