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Starting today, more than 190 governments will come together in Dubai under the umbrella of the U.N. International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in an event called the World Conference on International Telecommunications or WCIT (“wicket”). There, governments will rewrite a 25-year-old treaty, the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs), which sets the regulatory framework for the exchange of telecommunications traffic between nations.Contrary to some headlines: The UN is not trying to “take over the Internet.”But this treaty could fundamentally alter the way traffic flows across the Internet, and may even create new barriers to access. This is because some of the signatory nations have suggested the treaty not be limited to telecommunications traffic but should be expanded to include regulations for Internet traffic.In this case, the WCIT presents an opportunity for governments to reintroduce old regulations and maybe apply a more centralized nation-based order to the Internet.The Internet Society does not believe that a new treaty-based framework is good for the global, open Internet – especially one that regulates how IP networks are managed, alters network architecture, and determines how commercial agreements between network operators should be conducted.The Unintended ConsequencesEducation is just one example of the Internet’s potential to transform lives. Let’s think about how decisions made at what may seem like an esoteric treaty conference could potentially impact education.Time paints the picture of Khadijah Niazi, the young woman in Pakistan studying physics online via Udacity. Her class was comprised of thousands of students from over 125 countries, and Niazi was on her way to becoming the youngest girl to complete the Physics 100 course at Udacity. This wasn’t just a pastime: The course was an entry point for Niazi into higher education – something not easily available in her local community.Next door, India’s tablet initiative promises to revolutionize the education landscape there. But beyond that, it may alter the market for cellular communications and applications. In a host of developing countries, content creators are poised to put their stamp on this burgeoning space – where apps aren’t just about fighting Angry Birds, but about providing health information and financial tools to a whole new generation of users.Most participants in the upcoming WCIT would probably applaud these advances. Yet some of the policy decisions that the governments make these next two weeks could have a significant impact on whether these innovations are able to reach their full potential.Some telecommunications companies are looking at WCIT as an opportunity to address the business reality that new technologies are severely eroding traditional revenues from old-style voice calls. Customers are no longer making phone calls as they once did, and are instead using an application layer on the Internet to carry voice and video. Landline services are increasingly being replaced with mobile communications services that are themselves increasingly being used to provide data connectivity. Beyond voice, the companies argue that large content providers are making revenue from customers’ access to those services over their Internet connections.So these companies see this treaty as a way to “re-balance” revenue streams between carriers and “over-the-top” providers. Claiming that regulatory help is needed to ensure the ongoing investment in the Internet’s infrastructure, they have dusted off an old concept known in telecom circles as “sending network pays.” On its face, the idea is simple: The network or ISP of the sending party should pay for the delivery of their traffic (just as with cross-border telephone calls).Now let’s think about this for a moment.Under a sending-network-pays framework, online education providers like Harvard and MIT would have to pay telecom providers around the world to make their content accessible. In the case of 11-year-old Khadijah, Harvard may have to pay her telecom operator in order to deliver their online courses to Miss Niazi.Would Harvard pay? edX is just one of a brave new wave of higher-education tools – massively open online courses, or MOOCs. The purpose is to make educational content as broadly available as possible, enrolling an unprecedented number of students in courses for which universities have traditionally capped participation and charged significant fees.Any additional network payments (by the university or the university sharing the cost with the student) would constrain enrollment, diminishing the global value and potential of MOOCs. It’s far more likely that a content provider like Harvard or MIT would only make their online content available in countries that do not institute these regulations.Users in countries whose telecom companies demand these charges will therefore be left behind.Clearly, there are drawbacks for network operators – at a technical level, the sending-party-network-pays concept introduces friction into the network architecture, which inevitably raises costs and impedes the open flow of information across networks. Requiring content providers to establish bilateral relationships with all of the network operators that comprise the global Internet simply cannot be made to scale … because every Internet user is a potential content provider.Thankfully, these proposals have been met with skepticism by some countries that want to ensure their citizens have access to all the available content on the Internet – not just as passive consumers, but as active creators who also have opportunities to share their own content and services in turn.So will new platforms like MOOCs come about in the post-Dubai environment? The bottom line is that this global treaty conference matters. The decisions governments make in Dubai can and will have a very real impact on what the globally interoperable Internet looks like, particularly to those who are just now tapping into its potential.
The House on Wednesday unanimously passed a Senate resolution calling on the United States to oppose the United Nations gaining control of the internet.The resolution (.pdf) vote by the House, which follows a similar move by the Senate, comes as the World Conference on International Telecommunications opened Monday in Dubai with some 190-plus nations discussing the global internet’s future.The gestures by both legislative chambers are largely symbolic, however, as they mimic the U.S. government’s stance at the two-week meeting. The conference is designed to update the International Telecommunications Regulations governed by the International Telecommunications Union, a UN agency responsible for global communication technologies.“The 193 member countries of the United Nations are gathered to consider whether to apply to the internet a regulatory regime that the International Telecommunications Union created in the 1980s for old-fashioned telephone service,” said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Oregon). He said that should be “strongly opposed.”Walden’s remarks on the House floor concern proposals by various governments to treat internet connections like the telephone system, which are cause for concern regarding privacy and the unfettered, free flow of information.The United States opposes proposals to treat the internet like the telephone when it comes to transmission agreements. Some European and Middle Eastern members are calling for so-called termination fees, in which networks where a web session begins must pay the routing cost for the session’s destination — like phone companies work with phone calls.