At long last, “WCIT-12” is upon us. Delegates to the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications, commonly referred to simply as “WCIT,” are boarding flights for a two-week sojourn to the cosmopolitan city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. The forecast is unsurprisingly for warm, sunny days, but that may well be the only accurate forecasting we can do. The outcome of the confab, sponsored by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), is unpredictable and the stakes are very high.
The WCIT delegations will focus on an array of proposals and recommendations from a number of national and regional bodies to amend the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs), a treaty-based document that traditionally governs connectivity relationships between telecommunications networks. Think landlines -- government-controlled phone companies and simple “point A-to-point B” conversations. While this may over-generalize the situation, it is not an unreasonable description of global telecommunications in 1988, the last time the ITRs were open to debate and revision.
Much of the history of WCIT-88 has been lost due to the retirement of regulators, telecom experts and even phone companies, but the legacy of what reportedly was a fairly contentious conference can be summed up in three words: do no harm. That was the primary objective of the U.S. government and our western allies, and the strategy was prescient, if not brilliant. What they were endeavoring to protect was the emerging explosion in digital innovation, i.e., a rapidly-expanding Internet and intranets and various forms of communicating that have revolutionized practically every other sector of global and national economies. Free of the cumbrances of “old world” telecom regulations and other well-intentioned but ultimately confining rules of the road, entrepreneurs and corporations were free to develop new technologies and protocols at the speed of innovation, leapfrogging each other to produce advances that were once the sole domain of science fiction novels and comic books.
While the ITU and WCIT-88 may not get credit, ultimately, decisions NOT made at that conference turned out to be far more critical than those that were. And that leads us back to WCIT-12. The delegations have been and will continue to sort through reams of proposals to “evolve” or “modernize” the ITRs in order to “embrace” and inject some semblance of “order” upon a communications platform that has variously been described as “out of control,” or “at grave risk” from spammers and other merchants of fraud and deception, or “unfairly constrained” by a limited set of governments and corporations. Sounds like a potential screenplay for the next sci-fi or James Bond thriller!
I won’t address the speculation regarding the motivations behind some of the various proposals. Rather, I will adopt the tone and approach of the very capable and affable U.S. head of delegation, Ambassador Terry Kramer, and give the authors of these proposals the benefit of the doubt. There are very well-meaning and even passionate individuals attending WCIT-12 on behalf of their national governments, many of whom are seeking real solutions to very real problems facing their countries as they strive to embrace the digital age. Even so, many of the proposals that have been introduced are truly bad ideas that could significantly alter the vitality and freedom of access to unfettered communication enjoyed by consumers, businesses and governments across the globe.
Amb. Kramer has logged countless miles and hours meeting with his counterparts individually and collectively, touting the benefits of the Internet and related technologies, while highlighting the potential for even greater innovations tomorrow that will reach every country and nearly every individual on the planet. His message has been clear and consistent: the most effective and efficient way to advance national economic interests is to join the United States in embracing the “do no harm” mantra and refrain from altering the highly-successful ITRs, vintage 1988 − a very good year.
Over the next two weeks, I will report back here on occasion with updates from Dubai, courtesy of ITI members on the U.S. delegation and other friends in government and industry. It promises to be a tense, nail-biting 14 days. Stay tuned!