Something [WCIT] this way comes*
It is midnight in Dubai and I am listening to the final readings of the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITR). This instrument is the final output of two weeks of negotiations at the World Conference on International Telecommunication (WCIT), a gathering of the world’s nations to update the the ITRs. The Chair goes through the document article by article, section by section, and with each passing “thank you”, this Conference draws to a close.
Many in the room are elated. They have won hard-fought victories. Their issues are significant. Their chosen solutions adopted by a majority in the room. They can return home proud of their achievement. We should respect their effort and the result it yielded.
Others in the room experience different emotions. They run from sadness, disappointment, and frustration to acceptance, resolve, and pride. We worked tirelessly. We yielded where appropriate but remained resolute and principled throughout. We return home knowing we did all that we could and that the best possible outcome was achieved.
I was fortunate to be a member of the United States Delegation working with a range of industry, civil society, academia, and government experts. We were led by Ambassador Terry Kramer and entered the Conference with a set of principled positions on the Internet, liberalized markets, competition and others. These positions were based on the input of some 100 delegates plus expert contributions from others interested in the Internet and telecommunication.
Like many delegations, ours was a truly multi-stakeholder affair bringing expertise to bear on the full breadth and complexity of issues related to this treaty conference. These issues ranged from arcane telecom accounting practices to the implications of placing the Internet under intergovernmental control.
In the run up to the Conference, we were repeatedly told that the WCIT would not address the Internet or its Governance. The reality on the ground proved otherwise with a number of contributions either directly referencing the Internet or obviously reading on it. Considerable effort was expended in removing or mitigating the more egregious proposals. In the process we and others communicated the benefits of a free and open Internet, liberalized markets, and competition.
Unfortunately, not all of the contributions were dealt with in a manner that enabled the United States and others to accede to the treaty. (At this writing 89 nations have signed with 55 taking other positions.) I’m sure we all wished for a different outcome, one where consensus was achieved. Sadly, that did not occur and instead a series of [non]votes were taken in order to make progress. Such is the way of a treaty conference, or any outcome-based event with a firm deadline.
Consensus-based decisions take time. Principles must be understood, positions presented, compromises made. Throughout the process, enlightenment occurs at various times and in varying ways. Individually we consent to the will of the group. We accept the decision, because it is one we have made.
Complex issues require even more time, especially when they interact. Such was the case of this Conference that covered areas like accessibility, energy efficiency, e-waste, liberalized markets, expanded regulation, mobile roaming, human rights, and of course the Internet. In the end, there simply wasn’t enough time to bring everyone together on all the issues. Outcome was selected over consensus. Efficiency prioritized over understanding. Majority imposition over free choice. There is a lesson here if we choose to recognize it.
As the events unfolded in the final days of the WCIT, I could sense something important was occurring but couldn’t recognize it for what it was in the fog of the moment. With time came clarity and I now see both the stark contrast between the Internet Community and intergovernmental agencies’ decision making as well as the implications of that contrast for the Internet.
The Internet is proving to be the economic engine of the 21st century. It has developed without the aid of significant government oversight. It is governed by institutions that permit anyone to participate with most decisions made by true consensus. Given the breadth of debate that can occur when industry, academia, government, and individuals get in a room, it should be no surprise that decisions can be excruciatingly slow and frustrating to observe. At the same time, the process ensures that we have adequate time to learn and as a consequence we make better-informed decisions.
While Internet decision making may not occur at Internet speed, the Internet itself remains incredibly agile because individuals innovate, small groups self-form to repel attacks and address security incidents, and the community grows through a sense of ownership and pride of achievement. I’ve come to believe that the style of governance is in no small measure responsible for the success of the Internet and it is essential that it be preserved.
Would volunteers spend years of their lives on efforts where decisions are taken by a simple majority of “those in the room” that might result in their work being abandoned? Will investors fund startups that could have a similar fate? The answer to both is clearly no and the events in Dubai demonstrate how very real the potential for just such outcomes is if we cede control of the Internet to an intergovernmental agency.
What became obvious in Dubai was the power of consensus and its importance for the Internet. Voting has no place in our decision making. Straw polls, temperature taking, and other informal mechanisms to gauge consensus are important tools to achieve consensus but they are no substitute for it. When the individual chooses to consent to the will of the group, the group is strengthened in a way no vote can achieve.
The Road From Dubai
I’m now nearing the end of my day-long return journey that coupled with my day-long outbound leg bracket my time in Dubai and an experience I will never forget. I will miss the US Delegation meetings and the people I now consider friends and colleagues. Hopefully we will see each other again at the WTPF, plenipot, WSIS Review or other venues where some governments will attempt to exert control over the Internet through an intergovernmental entity. We saw it in Dubai and will likely see it in Geneva, Busan, or any of the various cities where intergovernmental agencies convene.
* anon, Dubai UAE, December 2012.