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ISOC, ITU, and WSIS

Let me start with a little orientation.

ISOC is short for the Internet Society. I have been a member since the mid-1990s.

Here is ISOC's brief history in its own words[1]:

The Internet Society and Internet History

The Internet Society was formed in 1992 by Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, two of the “Fathers of the Internet” The Internet Society's history and values reflect this founding lineage. Among its leadership and membership one can find many of the Internet's technical pioneers, innovators, and global connectors. Its mission—to promote the open development, evolution, and use of the Internet for the benefit of all people throughout the world—mirrors the guiding principles that gave rise to and enabled the propagation of our era's defining technology.

For more than 20 years, the Internet Society has also played an important role in informing and creating the history of the Internet. The Internet Society's foundational pillars - Outreach, Technology, and Policy - have found expression in initiatives that have helped to connect the world, supported the development of fundamental Internet technology, and promoted transparency and a multistakeholder, bottom-up approach in addressing global Internet governance issues.

Believing that “the Internet is for everyone,” the Internet Society has worked since its founding to make that goal a reality.

ISOC ultimately could be viewed as a group of elders who help oversee the ethics of Internet Governance by guiding a collective of (originally US founded) independent bodies that collectively oversees components that “make the Internet” - such as standards. This puts ISOC in the firing line when representing “the Internet” in globally regionalized legal debates.

The typical interface the public may think of is Vint Cerf talking about net neutrality before the US Congress or a similar political enquiry.

ISOC is a product of the Internet. However, the Internet itself, while ultimately a coming together of many things, was underpinned by a single key change in regulation that occurred in 1988 in the Telecoms market.

At the time the ARPA net had been switched off for four years, and the Internet was becoming the de facto way for academic institutions to InterNetwork. It was far from a mass market technology.

However, the Telecoms market was under pressure to open up. The ITU updated the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs) in 1988. For various reasons it was decided that Information Services would be left unregulated as a trade-off for maintaining more regulation on the lucrative, but increasingly competitive, “minutes” business that Telcos traded in. More governance helped the bigger ITU members protect their interests. They didn't see information services as being a particularly lucrative side of their business for another decade. By which time they started a lobby to try to get the Internet back under governance by the ITU, claiming that the Internet was a communications tool, not an “information service.”

That took a further 10 to 15 years to get back to the table, by which point the explosion of the Internet in Russia, China, India, and Brazil had changed scale completely, not to mention the political impact the Internet could have and with very little governance or control. These were previously disinterested members of the Internet's multistakeholder governance model, who now felt that they should have the right - as governments - to be able to impose governance. Ultimately The World Congress of Information Technology (WCIT-12) was chosen to create an agreement that ITU members would amend the ITRs to include the Internet as part of the ITU's remit for regulation. However no consensus on the amendment was finally reached.[2] Notably the BRIC countries were strongly in favor, and

US and European countries were dominantly against, the amendments. It was clear that there has emerged divided thinking on the subject.

Some countries were ultimately motivated because the historic founding organizations that oversaw the coming together of the Internet were dominantly US based. Those countries - particularly BRIC countries - were thinking that it would be better to now annex that regulation clearly into UN oversight, and to exercise this by bringing Internet Governance under ITU authority.

As an interim point, note that each country has always had sovereign rights to govern its own regional Internet policy, although it was up to them to provide the resource to enforce such policy. Here in the UK there is a general self-governance policy, with a few overarching laws of the land such as copyright and those protecting minors that do in fact now regulate the Internet landscape in parts.

In China, famously, their perimeter IP is all “firewalled” and heavily regulated within that “Great Wall”

There is though, no central governance of the Internet today. There is no global ban that can be placed on a user, and no particular inter-regional laws that can enforce firewall or prioritization - at the moment such technical interfaces are purely down to the agreements between the connecting operators. Within a region the local operator might have to adhere to the law of the land in terms of what to allow into the country / region, etc., but the frontiers are currently unchecked by any bilateral oversight.

Anecdotally - purely because I cannot find a public record of something I recall strongly - governments that are driving toward this central regulatory ability have been accused of “mercantilism” by various key heads of policy in the ISP community. I think this is a very good way to view this. In a world where the Internet has disrupted the typical government's ability to control its propaganda, and to fiercely enforce tight borders, the Internet age has challenged not just the music and content industry but many industries. Those that are change resistant and conservative - as most governments tend to be - are wary of this, and feel the erosion of their ability to maintain a sovereign territory border within which and across which they can enforce duty and taxation through self-determination and regulation.

With other disruptions coming from Internet technologies such as bitcoin and social media, the traditional government models are fighting to adapt to this post-Internet era, and sometimes they simply weigh in with their protectionist boots on the ground and create government policy to highlight what grasp they do retain.

The ITU and WSIS position and thinking relating to overall Internet Governance is likely to go on for a good while. Indeed, if it doesn't find a new way to frame the debate, it is likely that the stalemate will deepen and ultimately balkanize the Internet into at least two or more regions.

It is clear that in terms of the Inter-Operator, inter-continental, and interregional networking, the traditional Tier-1 networks are really those Telcos that would be most faced with compliance changes if regulation does move to the ITU.

There are only around 18 Tier-1 networks with global presence.[3] All but one of them (Tata) currently has headquarters in Europe or the US. Tata is the only BRIC country headquartered Tier-1 Telco. Notionally I could see the other 17 of the 18 simply washing their hands of the ITU and leaving.

  • [1] http://www.internetsociety.org/history
  • [2] https://www.asil. org/insights/volume/17/issue/6/intemet-govemance-and-intemational-law-controversy-concerning-revision
  • [3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tier_1_network
 
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