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June 7, 2012

Lunch today with Commissioner McDowell, and a riff on the ITU

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We had a great luncheon in Dallas today with a lot of IPI friends who gathered to hear FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell. If you missed it, well . . . .you missed it.

In conversation with IPI’s Bartlett Cleland, Commissioner McDowell talked about a wide range of policy issues running the gamut from broadcaster issues and decency regulation, wireless and spectrum issues, and even FCC regulation of children’s toys.

Commissioner McDowell stressed the importance of the attempt by some countries to leave the current multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance and move toward one dominated by governments. In particular he warned that those who want to use the United Nations specialty organization the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) were well organized and sophisticated, that they are patient incrementalists, and that the attempt would be subtle rather than brazen. And that their ultimate plan is a “global USF” fund to finance broadband in developing countries.

I was struck, therefore, after lunch when I came across the text of a speech that the ITU Secretary General, Dr. Hamadoun I. Touré, gave just yesterday to the ITU staff on this very topic. The speech was clearly intended to rebut the idea that the UN is engaged in a power grab over Internet governance, but there are troubling sections of the speech that reveal the real intentions of the ITU, and the truth of Commissioner McDowell’s warnings.

Early in the speech, Secretary General Touré ridiculed the accusation that the ITU wants to “run the Internet”:

“The first point is that we are not about to take over the Internet – that suggestion is frankly ridiculous.

We are not going to send in the blue helmets of the UN peacekeepers to police IXPs! And we are certainly not ready to make a grab for global domination.”

Okay, well that’s comforting.

The Secretary General tries a helpful analogy to further dismiss our concerns:

“I always compare this to roads, and cars and trucks. It is not because you own the roads that you own the traffic. And you may not be able to make the traffic flow smoothly. You need to know the height, and weight and breadth and be involved in designing some of the features so the bridges don’t collapse.”

Um, so just as government sets rules for public highways and regulates traffic, the ITU seeks to set the rules and regulate communications? This is supposed to dismiss my concerns?

One paragraph earlier the Secretary General engages in one of those lofty UN-style goals with which I’ve become familiar, having been at more than my share of World Health Organization (WHO) and World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) meetings:

“The information and knowledge made available by the Internet are global public goods of value to us all, and are now accessible to some 2.4 billion Internet users the world over.

So we all want to make sure that all the billions of mobile phone subscribers will be ultimately using it – indeed all seven billion people on this planet – that’s our ultimate goal; that’s our challenge: Internet for all the world’s people.”

(I’ll resist the temptation to rise to the bait of his assertion that knowledge and information are “global public goods,” though it isn’t easy to resist.)

Note that “Internet for all the world’s people” is the ITU’s goal, though I’m pretty sure that’s nowhere to be found in its charter. How much you wanna bet that the ITU has got an idea of how to get the Internet to all the world’s people, and how much you wanna bet that it involves the ITU?

“One of the many important issues that may be addressed at WCIT will be the question of how we ensure that there is sufficient investment in broadband network infrastructure.”

That’s a novel idea. It’s the job of the ITU to “ensure . . . sufficient investment in broadband”? When did that happen?

But why would we not put the ITU in charge of this stuff? After all, the ITU is responsible for all the great stuff that has happened in the communications industry in the past 25 years:

“WCIT-12 will review the treaty that is the basis of today’s connected world: the International Telecommunication Regulations, known for short as the ITRs. They underpin how we communicate with each other by phone or computer, by voice, video or data, and across the globe.

The ITRs were agreed in 1988 at the World Administrative Telegraph and Telephone Conference in Melbourne, Australia, and came into force in 1990. One of the four treaties forming the foundation of ITU’s mission, the ITRs is an international treaty to which 178 countries are bound.

Treaty-level provisions are required for worldwide networks and services. The ITRs set out principles for ensuring that networks can connect with each other smoothly, and that international services will be offered in a fair and efficient manner.

The current ITRs paved the way for market liberalization and the spectacular growth that we have seen in our sector – including the ‘mobile miracle’.” [italics mine]

I’m not even sure what to say about this. Yes, some rules and agreements are necessary for interconnection, but for the Secretary General to claim that ITU agreements are any more than a tiny factor in the “spectacular growth” in the communications sector is just breathtakingly exaggerated.

Concluding his speech, the Secretary General returns to his main wish:

“The conference must find a fair way to finance the broadband infrastructure the world needs . . .”

And this is what they really want. This isn’t the first time that a UN agency has tried to “address the digital divide,” and it's always been by proposing a tax on developed countries which would fund deployment of broadband and computers in the developing world.

I fully expect the ITU to propose a new fee or tax to be attached to Internet usage in rich countries in order to fund broadband buildout in poor countries. This “Global USF” fund would be collected and administered by the ITU, of course, or by a committee set up by the ITU.

You might be tempted to think this is a good idea. After all, don’t we in the U.S. have a USF system where we tax users of communications services in order to subsidize service in rural areas?

Yes, we do, and a discussion of the problems with that system will have to wait for later. But a global fund administered by a UN agency to facilitate broadband construction in developing countries would be a recipe for disaster.

Realize that every UN agency, regardless of its charter or mission, ends up becoming a "development" agency, and "development" in the UN culture means transfers of wealth from wealthy countries to developing countries. For every UN agency, ultimately the solution to every problem becomes contributions from wealthy countries, to be controlled and disbursed by the UN agency.

But there is another reason to have your guard up about a UN fund for broadband deployment.

There are good people working for UN agencies, but there are also professional scoundrels, who manage to get themselves appointed to a UN position so that they can direct money to their cronies in the developing world in order to expand their own political bases and enhance their political power.

This is why we continually end up with scandals at UN agencies, and for every scandal that makes the news, you can assume there are a dozen that are either undiscovered, or quietly hushed up.

Among the many reasons why all people of goodwill should resist giving a UN agency any kind of regulatory control over Internet issues is that it will immediately become an excuse for wealth transfers, and will eventually be yet another instrument of crony corruption.


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