WCIT-12: Just say no

By A.M. Rutkowski

It is 12 weeks and counting to WCIT-12 – to a treaty conference, where the nations of the world will assemble in Dubai to consider the continued existence of one of the ultimate anachronisms in international law, the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs).  The treaty had its origins in 1850 when government monopoly ministries stitched together the telegraph networks of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  The treaty basics have changed little since.  Yet paradoxically, most nations plan to participate in the bizarre exercise in Dubai.

The prev

WCIT-12 Timeline

ious WCIT in 1988 should have been the last one.  It was an attempt to put an end to the vestigial monopoly cartel that controlled the use of international telecommunication circuits.  For the previous 138 years – through a combination of WCIT treaties coupled with technical and tariff specifications – an open market for providing any kind of telecommunica­tion services was restricted to an elite club that was obliged to play by their rules. (See the timeline.)

In 1988, what is now the World Trade Organization, the European Commission, and pro-market governments sought to end the WCIT-based cartel.  The efforts were only partially successful at the meeting.  The cartel resisted, but made a fatal mistake – the liberalization was contingent on following copious detailed provisions of a sister technical body today known as the ITU-T for all public telecommunication and information services.

That mistake had immediate repercussions at the 1988 meeting as major countries like the U.S. that for 105 years up to 1973 had refused to even participate in these exercises, declared it would reject almost all obligations, and the EC subsequently initiated actions against operators who went along with the provisions.  The cartel also chose the wrong technical standards body, as almost all of the world’s standards for mobile networks, for the Internet, for web based services, for network management and security – all disappeared and went to other bodies.  The WCIT ITU-T standards mandates became irrelevant and simply ignored.  The world benefitted immensely as the old cartel control rapidly unraveled.  Innovation and global deployment of all kinds of new products and services ensued at hyper-speed and the world information economy emerged.  The smartphones in everyone’s pockets today owe their existence to the death of the WCIT regime.

Perhaps more than most people, I get to say something about these developments as I helped the late Secretary-General Butler write key provisions, headed the 1988 treaty conference secretariat, and was charged with formally interpreting the provisions afterwards.  He brought me to Geneva as a senior ITU official for more than four years to accomplish this.

So why is anyone assembling in Dubai in twelve weeks to continue an anachronistic treaty regime that is utterly irrelevant today?  At a political level, the answer is simple – the treaty is low-hanging fruit for any country, including a few old cartel players still around, with an axe to grind about what has ensued over the past 25 years.  The proposals are a parade of delusions about how some new treaty mandate will cure social ills.  Afraid of regime change or cybercrime?  Put some provision in the ITRs.  It is intergovernmental snake-oil marketing at its worse.  Countries like the U.S. feel bound to appear in Dubai to provide a sanity-check – even though the U.S. eschewed the experience for more than a century.

No one wins from a treaty conference that has no reason to occur – to alter a treaty instrument that has no rational basis for existence.  Everyone should collectively “just say no.”

Tony Rutkowski is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the GaTech's CISTP, heads NetMagic Associates and serves as EVP for Yaana Technologies. As an engineer-lawyer, he has held numerous senior positions and authored many standards, reports, and regulatory proceedings over several decades in industry, government and academia, domestic and international. He can be reached at trutkowski@netmagic.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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