November 10, 1998

TELEPHONE TITANS, BROADCAST BARONS, AND THE VIRILE INTERNET

by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—Into the current world order of communications has jumped a brash young hero. Almost unthinkingly, the Internet has shown a will to transform all forms of publications, telephone service, and broadcast media. But its emergence is also guaranteed to arouse some sleeping dragons of the old order, jealous of the treasures entrusted to them.

This past month, the Internet has been a topic of discussion at the International Telecommunication Union, the oldest standard-setting body in the field of communications. Formed in the mid-19th century, the ITU has mostly represented government regulatory agencies and monopoly telephone companies. But along the way, it has set critical standards for telegraph, telephone, and radio communications.

If you pick up a phone in Minneapolis and chat with someone in Dhaka, you probably don’t think of the astounding coordination required along a complex series of networks handling your call. Nor do you marvel at the ability to watch a baseball game currently going on in Tokyo, or at the assurance that your satellite broadcast bringing you the game won’t experience interference from dozens of other military and civilian transmissions. If the ITU had not provided a forum for international coordination of such matters, we would not enjoy these technological marvels.

Decisions of the ITU affect the Internet no less. For instance, the ITU recently approved a standard for G.lite or splitterless ADSL. This standard allows manufacturers to make high-speed data modems that work together, and improve the market for such modems by giving users like you some expectation that your modem will work together with your Internet providers’ equipment.

Modem standards are just one example of the technologies underlying the Internet that the ITU regulates. They even approve file formats, such as JPEG files that provide the pictures on many Web pages.

But as traffic moves from long-distance telephone companies, fax machines, and other well-understood technologies to the Internet, it’s leaving the ITU behind. For the past couple years, the ITU has been announcing that they want to be more in the loop.

The Internet was on their agenda from October 12 to November 6, when the ITU held a Plenipotentiary Conference in Minneapolis. A plenipotentiary takes place every five to seven years and is the ITU’s forum for setting long-term strategy, electing new officers, and—perhaps incidentally—making public pronouncements.

The ITU will benefit by considering the Internet, but it’s not clear the Internet will benefit from the attentions of the ITU. By its own admission, the organization is old-fashioned and slow-moving.

Its outgoing Secretary-General, Pekka Tarjanne, announced at a November 6 press conference that the organization is being “streamlined” and “rejuvenated”—the latter not just metaphorically. He boasted that the average age of the newly elected leadership is five years less than that of the last team. But the effort “must be continued.” In particular, the ITU wants to encourage the participation of more private corporations.

Two dangers may arise as the ITU tries to move beyond its traditional role in blessing standards and allocating spectrum. The first is that the organization will stumble over other bodies that have handled Internet standards quite well, such as the legendary Internet Engineering Task Force. So the ITU has contacted the IETF and other such organizations to inquire about what role each organization could play.

The other danger is that the ITU could impose a bureaucratic or centralized broadcast model on the Internet. As one example of the deleterious effects this would have, it is not unreasonable to fear some sort of control over content transmitted via Internet.

Anthony Rutkowski, a lawyer, engineer, and former ITU official, points out that it passed provisions long ago allowing governments to control what they consider harmful content on telecommunications networks. And while he was there, he would routinely see requests from one government or another asking the other member countries to block some sort of communication—although he never saw the members act on such requests.

Many governments have imposed controls on the Internet, ranging from the recent law against “harmful to minors” content in the U.S., to the efforts of the European Union to develop filtering tools and codes of conduct, to the prosecution of a pro-Communist student in South Korea. The ITU will undoubtedly get drawn into the process.

But one does not have to focus on the heavy hand of censorship to worry about the ITU’s attempt to insert its fingers in the Internet pie. Already, the organization’s first dip into Internet policy has left angry Internet users in its wake.

The flashpoint for policy making turned out to be domain names. Absurdly, a system designed to be flexible and extendible has led over the years to legal battles between parties vying for a particular name.

The island nation of Tuvalu bases its economic future on the hope that the major broadcast networks will get into a bidding war over the right to offer Web sites like www.news.tv. And while one wishes the best to the needy people of that nation—beset by problems from poverty to the rising tides of global warming—we can all accept that domain names need a more competitive and less encumbered registration system.

One of the earliest coordinated efforts to fix the domain name system was conducted by the Internet Society. Looking for a well-established and internationally recognized body to lend its backing to their new venture, they decided to play it safe by involving the ITU. And the ITU was playing it safe by throwing in its lot with the Internet Society.

But the larger body of Internet providers and domain name holders disrespectfully gave both organizations the boot. Too many of these Internet constituents believed that the Internet Society’s process had excluded them, that the resulting organization was too rigid, and that problems with domain names would only be made worse.

The Internet Society’s Memorandum of Understanding and hand-picked coordinating body were completely bypassed by the U.S. government, which felt forced to enter the turbulent waters when a raft of contending parties threatened to overturn the whole enterprise. The subsequent U.S. proposal has gradually come to be accepted, after various reservations, by government and industry bodies around the world.

But resolutions discussed at the ITU conference show that this body has not entirely lost its grudge over being trumped. Two groups of delegations introduced resolutions to prolong the involvement of the ITU in the domain name issue, and complained that the US recommendations were “giving an imprimatur on a new corporation proposed by the US Government.”

Differences between the US delegation and the others were never resolved. Nor did the ITU take the strong step of approving either of the two resolutions concerning its continued involvement. One of these will probably be approved later, though, shoving the ITU back into the fray where it will have to get to know the broader range of stakeholders in domain name system.

Given this history, the ITU leadership recognizes that it can present a frightening aspect to its potential Internet partners. Tarjanne assured the press on November 6 that, “There is no desire to grab any turf or territory, or to control the Internet. But if we can help the Internet community on domain names or other Internet governance, we will do so. We are at the disposal of the Internet community, but we don’t impose ourselves on them.”

I believe that some aspects of Internet development and use require decisions that only governing bodies can make. Libels, death threats, and even copyright infringement are sins that cannot be ignored. But suppleness and new thinking are paramount.

The domain name issue has become a model for how decisions in the future will be made. Even though a new governing body was approved by the U.S. government, it must still settle on open and accountable ways of conducting its business. And it still must come face to face (literally so, in Cambridge this coming Saturday) with the intransigent disagreement of many thoughtful and impassioned stakeholders.

According to Rutkowski, “The ITU has an illusion of an overarching role which they no longer play.” Can this organization understand domain names, with so many competitive and administrative issues—or other hot items on the Internet menu, such as privacy and pricing? We will see how fast they can come up to speed now that they have put themselves on the hook.


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