World Conference on International Telecommunications

  • December 13, 2012
    Guest Post

    by David G. Post, Professor of Law, Temple University, Beasley School of Law

    As you may have heard, the UN wants to take over the Internet. Two questions:  1. Really?  And 2. Should we be worried?

    On 1: The vehicle for the alleged takeover is the World Conference on International Telecommunications, now underway in Dubai. The WCIT has been convened by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), and it involves, in the ITU’s words, “review of the current International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs), which serve as the binding global treaty designed to facilitate international interconnection and interoperability of information and communication services.” 

    It sounds harmless enough. The ITU (and its regulations) go back almost 150 years. In the late 19th and early 20th century, international telecommunications meant telegraphs and telephones, and the ITU was created by 20 European countries to standardize telephone/telegraph interconnection protocols so that a telegraph message or phone call placed in London could be received intact in Rome (and, somewhat later, Rio de Janeiro and Riyadh). It’s not a trivial task, involving both technical standards and economic arrangements (to work out a system for allocating transmission charges), and by all accounts the ITU performed it well. Because telecommunications facilities were generally state-owned and state-operated for most of this period in most of the world, the ITU was constituted as a kind of “treaty organization,” one to which nation-state governments sent official representatives from the Ministry of Telecommunications (or its equivalent) to negotiate with their counterparts from other countries.  After WW II, the ITU was absorbed into the United Nations as a “specialized agency.”