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Expert Opinion by Paul Budde: WCIT and the Tower of Babel

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A key reason for the heated debate in relation to the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs) at the next World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) is the problem that different parties are talking about different elements while using the same words.

In the USA the internet is regarded as an ‘information service’ (and for regulatory purposes includes telecoms + content). This level of regulation keeps the ‘intertwined’ internet separate from other telecoms services in the country.

In the developed world outside the USA, however, the two are not integrated and from a government policy point of view the only element that is part of telecoms regulations is the infrastructure.  This means that the infrastructure used for the internet is simply telecoms infrastructure and that, as such, it forms part of the overall telecoms infrastructure environment and falls under the county’s telecoms regulatory regime – or for that matter under international telecoms regulations.

BuddeComm has always strongly opposed the American interpretation because it leads to a lack of competition, to broadband monopolies or duopolies and to the well-known problems of net neutrality; which are all far more prominent in the USA than in any other developed country.

Whatever rules apply to telecoms, very strong opposition exists – and not just from the USA – to any regulation that would increase the price of infrastructure usage. Such regulations would be completely unnecessary if the telcos were prepared to transform their organisation to better face the challenges and opportunities of the digital economy.

For this reason it is important to recognise the difference in interpretation between the USA and the rest of the world. Only when infrastructure is treated separately from services can a discussion take place about whether, and in what way, the burden of infrastructure investments can be solved.

Unfortunately this is only one part of WCIT’s Tower of Babel. When addressing international regulations regarding the internet each party is using its own interpretation in a different way – and sometimes the same party will use different interpretations for different parts of the internet. This particularly relates to governments. When they address the infrastructure elements as mentioned above they will perceive and interpret the internet as infrastructure. When they want to address cultural elements that they want to protect, or content they want to ban, they talk about content.

When they address intellectual property (also, confusingly, called IP) they use language put in front of them by the lawyers of copyright holders; legislation, language and concepts dating back to the 17th century.
The internet, however, suddenly becomes national interest if the discussion relates to cybercrime and cyber warfare.

It is hard not to conclude that some of the comments and positions taken in the WCIT debate are to some degree disingenuous. By creating ‘fear, uncertainty and doubt’ parties are trying to improve their bargaining position. This is a very typical occurrence in a monopolistic market and the telcos have long been masters of such behavior.

It would, of course, be far more productive if the parties involved were prepared to base their position on a more mature and well-informed state of affairs – e.g, the reality of the digital economy and the importance of infrastructure as a national utility that will deliver social and economic benefits beyond telco profits. But sadly they believe that to take such an informed approach would place them in a weaker negotiating position.

The best outcome for  the WCIT will be a clarification of language, clearly separating the various elements, putting fences around them, and making decisions as to who is going to discuss what – and also, importantly, once this clarification is established, what can be organised nationally and what needs to be addressed internationally. The ITU should take a leadership role in this as it is the international body that fully understands all the different elements of the internet and has a very clear view of the future, which is reflected in the ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission for Digital Development. It could play a key role in assisting its member states to understand the different issues that need to be addressed in the transformation of the industry and how to best address each one of them.

Only when that is done can decisions be made, and can proper international telecommunications regulation take place.

Paul Budde focuses on the telecommunications market and its role within the digital economy, with strategic research and consultancy services to international agencies, governments and businesses. This article reprinted by permission from BuddeBlog at http://www.buddeblog.com.au/frompaulsdesk/telcos-cannot-wind-back-the-clock

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International

U.S. Visa Policy Decreases Opportunity for International IT Standards Leadership

The ability of the country to host standard-setting conferences is key to its status as a global giant.

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Screenshot of Phil Wenblomm, Intel's director of standards

WASHINGTON, June 6, 2022 – Policy experts in May highlighted challenges to U.S. leadership in information technology standards, with lack of visa access to foreigners entering the country emerging as a problem area for the country.

That’s because foreign participation in U.S.-hosted standards meetings have been shown, according to the experts, to attract more participation on those standards.

“[D]ifferent studies show that when you host a meeting in a country, you get more participants from that country,” Phil Wennblom, Intel’s director of standards, said at a US Telecom event last month.

“And right now the U.S. is a fantastic venue for standards meetings – people love to come to the U.S. Except for all the difficulties of getting a visa and entry in the country,” he added.

According to Chris Boyer, AT&T’s vice president of global security and technology policy and another participant in USTelecom’s event, most standards meetings are currently hosted overseas, emphasizing the need for continuous research and development to maintain American power, “The best way to influence standards is to have the best tech.”

Discussions on IT standards take place against the backdrop of a technological battle brewing between the West and China and Russia to advance global IT policy toward their own interests. Last week, a panel at an Atlantic Council event noted that it cannot be assumed that Russia won’t be the next representative of the United Nations’ technology regulator, the International Telecommunications Union, just because it is in the midst of a war.

Wennblom also emphasized than in order for adopted standards such as on cybersecurity to be trusted and accepted as methodologically sound, they must be developed in committees with “wide participation and wide visibility” and “when it is fully transparent and all sorts of diverse experts participate.”

Wennblom stated a need for visa barriers to be reduced so that the U.S. may host more of such meetings and create more opportunity for itself in dialoguing on global standards.

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International

Cannot Be Assumed Russia Won’t Represent UN Tech Regulator Despite Invasion, Experts Say

Experts warned Thursday that American leadership on the ITU is not a slam dunk.

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Screenshot of Justin Sherman

WASHINGTON, June 2, 2022 – Experts speculated Thursday that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will not necessarily sway votes against a Kremlin representative sitting as the next secretary general of the United Nations’ technology regulator, the International Telecommunications Union.

The ITU exists to develop international connectivity standards in communications networks and improving access to information and communication technologies for underserved communities worldwide.

American candidate Doreen Bogdan-Martin runs against Russian candidate Rashid Ismailov in what former representative Chris Carney called the “most important election the American people have ever heard of.”

“We really need to not get ahead of ourselves and think that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will necessarily hurt Ismailov’s chances of being elected,” said Mercedes Page, fellow at the International Strategy Forum, at an event Thursday held by the Atlantic Council. “There are many countries that are supportive of more sovereignty over the internet and internet governance in telecommunications more broadly… That is where the root of the election is.”

The new secretary general will replace China’s Houlin Zhao, who has served in the position for eight years. The election will take place during the plenipotentiary conference in September.

“How countries are going to vote is extremely up in the air right now,” added fellow at Cyber Statecraft Initiative, Justin Sherman. He indicated that there has been a shift of country support recently. For years, there were liberal governments favoring an open internet approach on one side and authoritarian countries on the other. Swing states like India and Brazil have started voting with more closed-internet policies.

Sherman mentioned that one week after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, the ITU, at the proposal of the US and other western democracies, held a vote to kick some Russian representatives out of certain working groups. The vote breakdown showed that swing and developing countries abstained – indicating that these countries may be willing to side with the Russian candidate in the upcoming election.

Ismailov has support from China, added Page, and there are many other countries that are sympathetic to Russia’s agenda.

What’s at stake

“This is a really important election for shaping two core things at the center of the internet,” said Sherman. “One is tech standards, and the other is processes and authorities for internet governance. We’ve seen how open multistakeholder tech standards [supported by democratic nations] have been really valuable for calling people in other countries and trying to bring internet access and broadband connectivity to low-income countries. It’s been enormously helpful for national security to have consistent standards.”

Russia seeks to limit these benefits by pushing greater state control of the internet and will attempt change ITU standards, alleged Sherman. It will have ITU take over and essentially destroy internet governance organizations.

Panelists concurred that if Bogdan-Martin does not prevail in the election, the United States must begin to consider the coming election in four years. The U.S. must be prepared to work with other countries to ensure the desired results, they said.

The candidates

Bogdan-Martin is currently the director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau, “where she is leading efforts to transform the global digital landscape to improve connectivity, close gaps in infrastructure, elevate youth voices, and make the digital future more inclusive and sustainable for all,” the ITU website said.

Rashid Ismailov has worked in the telecommunication sector for over 20 years and has held various positions in Ericsson Russia, the largest network provider in Russia. He will work to, according to the website, “rise to the major challenge of modernity, emphasizing the importance of individual human beings.”

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Big Tech

Big Tech Must Unite Against Russian Invasion of Ukraine, Just as America and EU

The head of the Center for European Policy Analysis said America and EU need to agree on Big Tech.

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Photo of Alina Polyakova by Theadora Soter

WASHINGTON, March 4, 2022 — In the wake of Russia’s invasion on Ukraine on February 24, big tech companies are grappling with how to respond. And on Monday, many leading thinkers on the role of internet in society urged them to do more.

Technology companies in the Western world need to agree on an approach to handling misinformation regarding the invasion, said Alina Polyakova, CEO  of the Center for European Politics Analysis, speaking at the State of the Net conference here on Monday.

Polyakova’s plea came during a panel regarding the U.S. and EU relations at the annual Washington policy event that takes place during the week of the State of the Union address. She said that international tech giants were being forced to grapple with what role the might be able to play in response to the Russian invasion.

Platforms including Facebook, Google and Twitter have all significantly reduced Russian-backed ads. Meanwhile, YouTube, Meta’s Facebook and TikTok are blocking Russian media organizations, like RT and Sputnik, from using their platforms within the European Union.

But Polyakova said that tech giants shouldn’t be making these decisions without government help.

“If the United States and Europe are divided on the tech agenda front, then we’ll be divided on the values front. I think we need to start really pushing our governments to not leave companies fighting the large authoritarian states on their own,” she said.

Collective action by U.S. and EU, collective action by big tech

The implementation of aggressive sanctions, including banning many Russian banks from using the international payments system SWIFT on Saturday, demonstrated a united front, at least as Ukrainians began mounting their strong defense of their capital city Kyiv as Russian forces began attacks on the city on February 25 and Saturday.

Speaking on Monday, Polyakova said she was optimistic about the cooperation between the American and Europe, stating, “Hopefully the unity we’re seeing right now between Europe and the United States in response to Russia will be channeled into greater cooperation on this agenda as well.”

Still, the lack of a united front  by the big tech companies does create a disconnect, she said.

Twitter may flag a propaganda post from the Russian government, yet Facebook may not. That adds fuel to the fire of misinformation, Polyakova said: It hinders “our ability to counter disinformation across narratives on the online space.”

She urged general regulations of big tech. “We still don’t have just a basic, regulatory framework that will give companies some guidance on what they should or should not be doing,” she said.

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