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The alarms went off with the publication, on the Internet of course, of some documents prepared for the upcoming World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) set for December in Dubai.


The leaked documents were posted by the Web ite  WCITLeaks, which was created by two policy analysts at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Arlington, Va. While there is actually no policy forbidding WCIT members from making their working papers secret, they are generally exchanged through a web site with controlled access, not available to the public and press. In response to what its founders called a "lack of transparency", WCITLeaks offered a means for people with access to the documents to publish them anonymously. The site also lists scores of documents known to have been filed but still hidden from public view.

The documents make up a wish list for changes some would like to see to the current International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs), which serve as the binding global treaty governing the way international voice, data and video traffic is handled. The ITRs were last negotiated in 1988, when what would become the Internet was a limited access project owned and operated by America's National Science Foundation. The WCIT is convened by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), originally created in 1865 and a United Nations Specialized Agency since 1947. As its principal functions the ITU allocates broadcast frequencies and orbital slots for geosynchronous communications satellites. It also assigns country codes for the direct dialing of international telephone calls. It currently does not oversee the Internet, but several of the now public drafts call for it to assume a major role, including the imposition of new rules and fees.

After the documents went public, a committee of the US House of Representatives held a hearing. Vint Cerf, Network Trailblazer, one of the "fathers" of the Internet, and currently "Chief Internet Evangelist" at Google, implored the Congressmen to make sure the United States would fight for a "free and open Internet." Several of the largest American tech companies, including Google and Cisco, warned of threats to human rights and financial consequences if countries impose some of the new rules and tariffs they are said to be considering. These companies, Facebook, Microsoft, AT&T, Amazon, Intel, Juniper Networks, PayPal, Sony, TMG Telecom, Verizon, Ericsson, Go Daddy and others will join diplomats in a 95-person American delegation to the WCIT.

The House in a resolution asked US negotiators to the WCIT to express, "the position of the United States on Internet governance that clearly articulates the consistent and unequivocal policy of the United States to promote a global Internet free from government control and preserve and advance the successful multi stakeholder model that governs the Internet today." Since the Internet is truly international in nature, some people wonder why the UN shouldn't have something to say about how it operates. Others argue that there are so many reasons to keep the UN out of Internet governance that the odds that the UN will, as some headlines had charged, "Take over the Net" are slim to none. But there are other threats to the Internet's bottom-up, consensus style governance which are very real. And if you are of the opinion that the Internet's explosive growth is a direct result of that style, you are justified in being worried about its future.

What is the Internet and Where Did It Come From?

For American politicians and even American companies to be up- in -arms over the prospect that the ITU, by rewriting the ITR, will try to assert some form of control over the Internet is not surprising. But concern has also been expressed by many international organizations representing Internet stakeholders. The Internet Society, which advocates equal access to the Internet for everyone, has published a rare background position paper, stating, "The Internet Society believes it is not advisable to resolve Internet-related technical, operational or commercial issues via a static, international treaty such as the ITRs."

Many of the proposals advanced by national interests and much of the media reaction to them indicate a profound confusion on just what the Internet is, where it came from, and who, if anyone, controls it. There are also many efforts to rewrite the history of the Internet to advance one position or another. The first operational packet switching network designed to connect multiple separate networks together into a network of networks was the ARPANET (1969), funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the United States Department of Defense. The various technologies were developed by several commercial and academic contributors, but they were under the direction of ARPA, which wanted the various groups working on its projects to be able to share information and resources. They were paid by the American taxpayer who also paid for the development of the Interface Message Processors (IMPs) which performed the translation, store and forward functions at the heart of the interconnection process.

When the network was ready to move from the research stage to an operational system control was passed to the National Science Foundation (1981). NSF standardized TCP/IP and introduced the concept of a global internetwork, a network of networks. Later NSF created the first highspeed backbone to connect supercomputing centers, again paid for by the US taxpayer (1985). It took ten years for private communications companies to enter the market. In 1995 NSF decided it could rely on the commercial alternatives and no longer had to operate its own network. With NSF out of the picture, legal restrictions on commercial use of the network ended. Today the Internet connects millions of networks ranging in size from the global backbones owned by the multinational communications companies to the GurveyNet, made up of about 100 feet of Cat5 wire I've strung in my house. Most of these networks are privately owned and operated and no one, not the UN, not the US, is able to take them away.

Who's in Charge?

If the Internet is really all these independent networks, what does it mean to ask, "Who's in Charge?" The Internet moves bits from one place to another. That's it. To do this it needs to know very little about transmission and nothing at all about the meaning of the bits  themselves. All it needs to know is where the bits are coming from and where they are going. To that end, every "host" on the Internet has a numeric address and these addresses make up the first defining element of the Internet. And if the addresses are like telephone numbers then the Domain Name System (DNS) is like the telephone directory. If you are too young to have ever seen a telephone directory, think about the electronic contact list in your mobile phone. The root of the DNS tree, the beginning of a massive structure of domain directories, is the second critical element.

The allocation of addresses, and the maintenance of the DNS root servers, which the US government calls the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), was once handled by one man, Jon Postel at the Information Sciences Institute (ISI) of the University of Southern California (USC), under a contract USC/ISI had with the United States Department of Defense. In an effort to step back from direct control, the US created the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a non profit private organization headquartered in Los Angeles, California. ICANN performs the IANA function under a United States Department of Commerce contract. The US has been granting ICANN more and more autonomy, leading some foreign reporters to write stories claiming that the US has given up control of the Internet. But the Commerce Department it still administers the IANA contract, recently renewing it for 3 years with two 2 year options.

ICANN is not the only organization involved in Internet operations. Core technical standards and protocols are managed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) which has an open membership policy. And the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), run by Web inventor and W3C founder Tim Berners-Lee is made up of member organizations dedicated to develop and extend HTTP and the other related protocols which give the Web its personality. But ICANN runs those parts of the Internet which give the Internet its unique identity. ICANN has taken many steps to create an environment of multi-national, multi-stakeholder, consensus based governance, but it does so under contract from the US Government.

Can the UN or Anyone Else Take Charge?

In June the US appointed telecom executive Terry Kramer to be its Ambassador to the conference. In early November  the US made public its initial proposals for changes to the ITRs at the WCIT. The US position specifically says it will oppose any effort to extend "regulatory burdens" to the Internet. As a matter of law, that ends the discussion. The ITR is a treaty, which means it doesn't bind any country that doesn't sign it. Policy statements make it clear that the United States will not agree to any treaty transferring the right to control the IANA functions to some other entity. The U.S. Senate, which would have to consent to the new ITR treaty, has already unanimously passed S.Con.Res. 50 supporting this policy.

It is possible some other entity, the UN for example, will start handing out address numbers and will maintain its own root servers. If you've ever managed a network where the same IP address had been assigned to two different hosts or had to clean up corrupt pointer records in a DNS server, you know what a mess that would be. You can't interoperate with a network running a competing name space. So you'd partition it off. The new namespace would be a network, but it would be some other network. Call it the UN-Net or maybe the ITU-Net or maybe the "anybody but the US net." Whatever it is, it would not be the Internet and network operators would have to decide which net they want to interconnect with.

Some reports suggest this would be a "forking" of the Internet, similar to a problem sometimes seen with open source code, where different extensions to a base source result in incompatible versions. This is more like what is called Balkanization, breaking the net into smaller pieces separated from each other. While there may be some countries which are willing to do this, it is difficult to believe that the vast majority will be willing to give up the Internet's most attractive feature, nearly universal interconnectivity. The Internet has developed from an experiment, to an academic research tool, to a key facilitator of international commerce. It seems unlikely that countries will force their businesses to find other means to communicate with the American market. At the very least such a policy would increase costs and at worst it would make selling into the American market virtually impossible.

ICANN has gone to great lengths to develop an all-inclusive governance style meant to include non-American interests. While the ITU allows only its 190+ member states a voting role, ICANN works with thousands of "stakeholders". These include national governments, nongovernmental organizations, academic interests, and commercial concerns. Policy is developed through a consensus building process familiar as a standard-setting regime. ICANN has handed out chunks of the numeric address space to various interests,  allowing them to allocate those addresses to their customers. It has also given national governments control over top-level domains unique to their nations. These procedures have given national interests a considerable amount of autonomy, allowing them to give precedence to their own concerns. ICANN is also adopting plans to allow Internet users to use names in Chinese, Arabic and other non-Latin alphabets.


And it is implementing a plan to greatly expand the available name space through the creation of generic top level domains. All of these programs are part of ICANN's drive to give the worldwide Internet community greater input into its governance. While the standard-setting process can be long and time-consuming because the Internet serves first and foremost as a mover of bits and allows users to interpret those bits in any manner they see appropriate, entrepreneurs can extend existing protocols or test new ones as quickly as they can code the algorithms required. This would seem to answer those who argue that ICANN's management style requires some form of "correction".

What Will the UN-ITU Do?

Clearly in reaction to the public debate, ITU Secretary-General, Dr. Hamadoun I. Touré, has been making the rounds. In a speech to his own staff, Touré decried the public turmoil and insisted, "We are not about to take over the Internet – that suggestion is frankly ridiculous. We are not going to send in the blue helmets of the UN peacekeepers to police IXPs! And we are certainly not ready to make a grab for global domination."

Then Why Are People Worried?

People are worried because the fact that the Internet has become an engine of global commerce, the very reason why a fragmentation of the network is unlikely, greatly increases the forces which act to change the nature of the Internet in pursuit of profit. Even if global level agreements are unreachable, national and regional interests are likely to be asserted in the years ahead. It has to be noted that even with the "old" technologies and with IRCs in place, signatory nations can do what they please when it suits their own interests. Nations have been known to purposely interfere with the broadcast signals of other nations, radio, television and satellite, in clear violation of the treaty, when they wished to prevent their citizens from receiving information. In the new world of the Internet, the "blocking" or "jamming" of information flows is even easier.

The graphic on the right, created by GeoTel Communications, LLC  shows the fiber lines handling international Internet traffic. While there are some other connections between countries, radio, satellite, etc., the vast majority of international Internet traffic rides on one of these circuits. Interestingly, even in countries with the most connections, the number of "entry points" is small enough to allow for the country to create a "choke point". The ITR recognizes the right of any nation to control communications within its borders, and to control communications which pass through its borders. In his speech Touré added, "Such restrictions are permitted by article 34 of the ITU's Constitution, which provides that Member States reserve the right to cut off, in accordance with their national law, any private telecommunications which may appear dangerous to the security of the State, or contrary to its laws, to public order or to decency."

Even without the cover of a provision in the IRC, nations have utilized the choke points to keep their citizens from visiting specific web sites, or from viewing web pages. The Great Firewall of China is legendary for blocking discussion of demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. The Egyptian government reportedly shut down its entire domestic network for a time during the Arab Spring demonstrations last year. Judging from the various proposals that have been put on the table at the WCIT, several countries want these practices to be "legalized" in the IRC. China and Russia, among others, would like to see technical steps taken to make it easier to trace the source of communications.


China recently published a white paper on "The Internet in China" which includes lengthy statements on policy and law including "… no organization or individual may produce, duplicate, announce or disseminate information having the following contents: being against the cardinal principles set forth in the Constitution; endangering state security, divulging state secrets, subverting state power and jeopardizing national unification; damaging state honor and interests; instigating ethnic hatred or discrimination and jeopardizing ethnic unity; jeopardizing state religious policy, propagating heretical or superstitious ideas; spreading rumors, disrupting social order and stability; disseminating obscenity, pornography, gambling, violence, brutality and terror or abetting crime; humiliating or slandering others…"

China, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan have proposed an International Code of Conduct for Information Security to the United Nations. The proposed code of conduct would be voluntary, but clearly moves away from IETF, ICANN, and multi-stakeholder centric governance toward a regime where "policy authority for Internet-related public issues is the sovereign right of States". It is only fair to point out that the United States, among other nations, has pushed for limits on network anonymity in the name of cyber security and anti-terrorism. The US has also reportedly used its choke points to monitor the contents of email coming entering and leaving the country. And in virtually every nation owners of intellectual property advocate rules of this type as a means of stopping what they believe is the illegal transmission of their property.

It's All About The Economy

The most dramatic changes that can be expected in the years ahead are a direct result of the Internet's growing status as a leading driver of the world's economy. When there is money to be made, every nation takes notice. With 2 billion people now connected to the Internet in one form or another, and some 5 billion to go, everyone wants a piece of the action. Developing countries complain that they are being left out of the riches and call for taxation to help pay for the extension of the Internet to their people. The ITU and the UN have a history of supporting efforts such as these in the name of worldwide development. ITU agreements have in the past supported a form of price- fixing to the benefit of worldwide telecommunications companies. These companies were often state -owned, or monopolies operating with state approval. International telephone  fees were historically set at rates higher than market competition as a means of guaranteeing the profits for these companies.


The disruptive effect of the Internet, where bits are bits whether they represent telephone, television or some other form of data,  and where there are multiple network vendors and multiple paths a message can take from source to destination,   has destroyed this type of price -setting. Many nations have suggested new rules to guarantee a certain amount of revenue. One such proposal comes from a European lobby group, the European Telecommunications Network Operators Association (ETNO), representing telecommunication companies in 35 nations. The proposal echoes complaints European interests have expressed for years, charging that many companies make use of network bandwidth without paying for the privilege. The Europeans usually list companies including Google,, and Apple. These companies are all very profitable, and very American. The European proposals seem to be aimed at the imposition of a tax on companies using the Internet under some kind of an undefined "value added" proposition.


The Europeans are also proponents of the "principle of sending party network pays", which is different than the American  principle under which everybody pays the costs of transmission. This would be a 2012 version of the 1988 ITR rule of "caller pays" for international telephone calls. It is difficult to see how such a rule could be applied to Internet traffic, where the traffic is stateless and there is no callerEven more confusing, it is difficult to see how the principle would be applied when parts of a single message could travel on different routes, some passing through countries which charge the new tax and others avoiding it. Will network routers, which currently choose paths for data based on a technical cost analysis, number of hops, route latency, etc., have to take into account actual network fees or taxes as well?

And while the ENTO clearly intends to make the likes of YouTube, which is owned by Google, pay extra for its traffic, it is debatable that YouTube is properly labeled the "sending party". YouTube doesn't shove unsolicited video down the throat of an unsuspecting European computer user. The European initiates the call by sending a request to YouTube! One can only imagine what would happen if you walked into one of the great men's stores in Europe and expected not only to get a new suit of clothes for free, but for the store to also pay to have it delivered to the US. For people who understand how the "plumbing" of the Internet works it is inconceivable that anyone would propose such a pricing scheme. The trouble, as the Internet Society explains in another detailed paper, is that the people proposing these ideas have no idea what their implementation would cost. In still another analysis, LIRNEasia, a regional ICT policy think tank active across the Asia Pacific, worries that the ENTO proposal would slow the expansion of communications facilities in the developing world.


LIRNEasia is even more concerned with similar proposals originating from the Africa Region, which it says seeks  "to redefine once-narrow ITR telecommunications definitions to encompass the much larger ecosystems of the digital economy…." Will companies in the United States avoid doing business with countries imposing new taxes in the form of transmission fees? Will the United States refuse to pass through traffic bound for those countries? Will American companies pass the costs selectively to customers in the taxing countries? Will the US impose retaliatory taxes? And how does one account for multinational companies and global telecommunications systems? While these taxes may seem like a nice revenue stream for some governments, it is difficult to see how they would ultimately be of benefit to their people.

An extensive report prepared with support from several of the world's largest Internet- related companies by industry consultant Analysys Mason finds "The Internet and the international voice network are fundamentally different" and that "Imposing ITU accounting rules on the Internet will hurt developing countries." The report forecasts the number of Internet users growing from 2.2 billion today to 3.5 billion in 2020 and recommends "Instead of imposing international economic regulations, policies should focus directly on developing a robust Internet ecosystem." Even if the mechanism of the UN-ITU does not prove to be the means to implement changes to the generally ad hoc agreements which have governed Internet operations to this point, it seems reasonable to expect at least some of them will be put in place by network players on an individual or regional basis. The battle over which changes are made and how they come about will be fought on many fronts in the years ahead. The Internet's childhood is over and as it enters its adult phase, some of its original free spirit will undoubtedly be lost.


The contents or opinions in this feature are independent and do not necessarily represent the views of Cisco. They are offered in an effort to encourage continuing conversations on a broad range of innovative technology subjects. We welcome your comments and engagement.

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#1 Bob Smith 2013-01-11 06:21
Great Article, Thanks

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