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The Battle for the Future of the Internet?

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The World Conference on International Communications (WCIT-12) begins in Dubai on December 3. Convened by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN agency in charge of telecommunications, WCIT-12 looms as a turning point for the Internet's governing rules and economic model. In all, representatives of 193 countries will come together to review the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITR) agreed in Melbourne 25 years ago.

Singing from the same songbook as Web juggernaut Google, the U.S. government is strongly opposed to any changes to the treaty, arguing the Internet has nothing to do with 'traditional' telecommunications, and -- more ominously -- that freedom is at stake. In contrast to this 'no changes proposed' plan, other member states are likely to bring different perspectives and ideas to feed into discussions at the 11-day event. The fight is growing increasingly vocal.

Constructing a fairy tale usually requires a cast of 'bad guys.' Vladimir Putin declares that WCIT-12 should address Internet governance, and you get the plot line that Russia wants to control the Internet and its infrastructure networks. Ditto China. Add the apparent influence of Dr Hamadoun Touré, ITU's Malian Secretary-General who received his Ph.D. in the former USSR, to the mix. Now we have all the necessary threads to point to a thinly-disguised attempt to seize cyber control in the best Cold War style. What a nice (paranoid) story -- supported by no substantive evidence.

For the U.S. chorus-preaching doomsday scenarios, it is the 'threat' of centralized control -- and the alleged implications for increased governmental censorship -- that is presented as the defining question at stake. In essence, their argument goes that the Internet in its current form is a pure and perfect example of a democratic, decentralized system. A fairy tale. While the old credo by David Clark -- "we reject presidents, kings and voting; we believe in rough consensus and running code" -- is part of the Web wonderland hagiography, it's not reflective of reality. The Internet works because it operates according to agreed principles, rules and -- yes -- centralized control.

Campaigning fiercely against the fact ITU member states have dared to show an interest in their turfs, Google maintains -- mainly through its Vice President Vint Cerf -- that the Internet is not governed, except through an informal multi-stakeholder model supposedly representing the Internet 'community.'

Such a philosophy would obviously make sense except for three small 'details': one government is controlling most of the structurally key 'independent' stakeholders (the U.S.); there is no legitimate and accessible forum to ensure a fair and equal voice for all 'community' players; and the greatest lack of transparency is found not at the ITU, but within Google and its web of public and private sector partners in the U.S. today enjoying the lion's share of Internet revenues -- whether flowing from marketing, advertising, transit and peering, infrastructure, software or hardware.

In fact, despite never really owning the Internet, the U.S. government 'offered' control of its root server 'backbone' and policy-generating function to a private Californian association -- the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) -- that has been described accurately by University of Miami Law Professor, Michael Froomkin, as engaged in activities representing "U.S. governmental regulation in all but name." Phrases like "conflict of interest," "collusion," "non-transparency" and "corruption" are never far away when describing the organization's activities and governance.

Having done so, the cherry on the cake would be announcing to the public at large that the transfer of control from governmental to private hands should be viewed as a great success story. This is what happened in 1998, despite fierce resistance from the late Jon Postel. As a leading American computer scientist, one of the founding fathers of the Internet and 'ruler' of its original governance structure, Postel attempted to save the Internet from falling into the control of government hands. Postel died, however, just weeks before Ira Magaziner, the White House Special Adviser heading an ad hoc inter-agency task force on electronic commerce, was able to claim full victory over the academics and researchers who were, until then, managing the central root server system.

The second element of the fairy tale concerns censorship. Despite fear mongering by the Cerf-endorsed 'Stop the Net Grab' campaign of the International Trade Union Confederation, the reality is that any country today has the ability to control its own cyberspace, blocking or censoring any of its citizens. At the same time, censorship of Internet-based speech has proven difficult, as recent global tumult toppling repressive government regimes has shown.

So, where does that leave us? If the pre-WCIT-12 rhetoric of a threatened end to our current Internet Eden obscures the reality of an online world built around a handful of U.S.-controlled root servers, and where restrictive governmental intervention already occurs on a daily basis (with little condemnation from major sectoral players), then what should we be really focused on in Dubai?

At the most basic level, 'net neutrality' refers to non-discrimination in transiting data packets. For years, data delivery was based on a 'best effort' principle - every connected network operator would do their best to transfer data, with no timing guarantee, defined hierarchy, nor specific quality requirement. But today, all Web-based businesses are well aware that speed improves end-user experience, and boosts revenues. On top of constant increases in traffic, video streaming has also emerged as a significant bandwidth consumer. Fierce competition is pushing the market to secure 'quality of service' guarantees around resolution, smooth play and start-up time. A portion of the data circulating today over the Internet will increasingly be subject to contractual commitments, and will need, therefore, to secure top-priority laissez-passer. Step by step, the speed issue is creating a split between 'economy class' data, and 'premium' and 'first class' data. Only those with the money to pay will be able to afford the best speed and quality.

Another significant element of the 'speed battle' relates not to data flows, but to capacity. We know that emerging and developing economies are already slow on their own infrastructure development, and facing challenging conditions to identify additional funds to build necessary facilities and purchase necessary equipment to offer, or increase, broadband access. A parallel infrastructure divide between broadband and non-broadband countries will exacerbate the split in data 'classes.' Similarly, revenues will inevitably follow technology -- more to the rich, less to the poor.

The question of revenues leads us to the most critical issue on which U.S. actors have been conspicuously silent -- the payment model for operating service provision. ETNO, the 50 member European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association driving broadband growth in Europe, has suggested to ITU member states a revision of Article 3 of the Melbourne treaty:

"Operating Agencies shall endeavor to provide sufficient telecommunications facilities to meet requirements of, and demand for, international telecommunication services. For this purpose, and to ensure an adequate return on investment in high bandwidth infrastructures, operating agencies shall negotiate commercial agreements to achieve a sustainable system of fair compensation for telecommunications services and, where appropriate, respecting the principle of sending party network pays."

ETNO can, like any other entity, defend and push its ideas to all member states, which may or may not endorse them as a formal 'proposal' at WCIT-12. A 'paying sender' principle would place the U.S., however, in a premium position as a payer. The current situation is actually the opposite: in effect, a 'paying receiver' system. When, for example, a citizen of Botswana uses Google's search engine, the relevant operating agency of Botswana will ultimately have to pay the operator sending the data. Consequently, when a massive spam campaign is enacted, the consumption of bandwidth is assigned to the receivers. Few people realize that the largest share of spam, if not conceived in the U.S., is sent from American servers. Naturally, these servers are paid for the service. Yet, this also creates a 'consumption of bandwidth' for the receivers, resulting in greater usage charges.

Switching to a model that combines both principles -- that is, where sending and receiving parties each contribute to bandwidth infrastructure costs -- would modify the distribution of revenues between operating agencies. Most significantly, American actors would have to pay other national operators. Part of the redistribution could be used to assist emerging and developing countries develop broadband infrastructure, reducing the technological deficit and boosting economic growth. Google -- amongst other big senders -- would be unable to continue using freely the worldwide infrastructure network for which it did not spend a penny. The fact that Google is building its own CDN centers is not comparable, albeit the company's actions may indirectly help to resolve its data 'traffic jams' by locating content closer to end users, and reducing the 'journey' of data packets. Amending the ITR to introduce a new payment approach would be revolutionary -- a revolution not welcomed, however, by U.S. interests.

Ultimately, there is more than a whiff of hypocrisy emanating from the present Internet governance discourse. The infrastructural backbone is controlled, revenue is controlled and content is controlled. The voices speaking out in defense of decentralization benefit from the veiled centralization of the status quo, while the fairy tale of foreign bogeymen diverts attention from systemic imbalances that tilt the playing field in the interests of U.S. actors. The grey zone where U.S. officials and people like Cerf mingle is larger than meets the eye. But that is a bedtime story for another night.

Jean-Christophe Nothias is the founder, chairman and editor in chief of The Global Journal. Follow him on Twitter @jc_nothias and follow The Global Journal here: @globaljournalny