Recently the United Nations International Telecoms Union, or ITU, has come under fire for a conference it is putting on called the WCIT-12. Companies like Google and groups like Access Now have banded together to stop the ITU from the perceived threat that it intends to destroy the Internet through a unilateral closed-door decision making process by the world’s governments. We think there is more to this story. Let’s start from the top.

The telegraph connected people at the speed of light across thousands of miles. Clunky as the technology was, it was in demand and telegraph companies realized that if they strung cables across the ocean floor they could connect entire continents to one another. In 1858, with much pomp and circumstance, the first transatlantic telegraph was sent between the US and UK. The thick 2,000-mile cable promptly blew up thereafter, but many more were to replace it.

Soon the telephone made its appearance followed by the Internet. Every phone call, webpage, or text message that you send or receive from a person or computer on another continent has to cross the (now upgraded) cables that snake across the ocean floor between the world’s continents. We’ve also added new technologies like long-range radio communications and satellites that make connecting across continents even more seamless. If you’re reading this outside the United States this post was made possible by a transatlantic cable across the ocean floor. (So cool, right?)

However, with the advent of fancy new global technologies came new global problems: What are the rules for pulling a cable through international waters? Who is protect the cable when it finds itself on another country’s shores (anchors are a bit of an issue)? If a satellite can provide service to the entirety of continental Europe, which country decides what frequencies it can operate on (Cuba jams basically all of them)? There are only so many places you can put a satellite without them crashing into one another – who decides where each satellite should be parked (also known as an ‘orbital slot’)? And how do we connect all these technologies together so no one is left out (because working together can be tricky)?

…These are big questions, and the ITU was created almost 150 years ago to address them.

What is the ITU? How does it work? First and foremost, the ITU is us! As a United Nations organization, it is made up of representatives from 193 member countries. Delegates are selected by each member country to represent the country’s interests. Members from the private sector and civil society organizations can participate in the dialog as well. Generally, country delegates bring an entourage to ensure that their country’s interests are well represented – for example, the United States is bringing 125 people to the WCIT-12 as part of its delegation.

Each delegate from the 193 member countries has a vote and the voting rules dictate that a majority vote wins. This is how treaties are decided between countries, how orbital parking spots for satellites are given away, how standards are agreed upon, and how international spectrum is handed out.

The ITU has done this for decades and are a major reason why we have the global telecommunications system we enjoy today. Could you imagine having to negotiate an Internet plan with every country from which you accessed a webpage? The ITU and its member countries take care of that. The ITU is a far cry from perfect – they have a history of catering to commercial interests (arguably because no one in recent history has really had a vested interest except industry), being outrageously slow, and not being particularly quick to innovate. (Can you believe that charging for long distance phone calls is still a thing?)

It all seems straight forward, except for the ITU’s alleged diabolical plan to take over the Internet, right? The main issue that companies and civil rights groups are taking umbrage with is a lack of transparency in the upcoming World Conference on International Telecommunications 2012 (WCIT-12). Allow me to elaborate.

The WCIT-12 is going to be the event if you work in telecommunications. It’s like the Oscars for telecommunications bureaucrats and telco executives except you’ve never heard of anyone in attendance and they don’t give out awards. The event brings together delegates from all countries to update the regulations of the ITU. The last event was in 1988 in Melbourne Australia (WATTC-88) and everyone from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe was in attendance. What did they do? They updated the same set of regulations that were ratified in 1977. These regulations are the basic set of rules that all the member countries adhere to.

Now, the major concern is what changes will be made to the regulations at this year’s event? The Internet was barely around in 1988, how do we know that the world’s countries aren’t going to write some draconian regulation that will censor the entirety of the World Wide Web? For example, earlier this year Russia drafted a nasty set of amendments and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin stated he’d like “international control over the Internet” which ruffled a lot of feathers. But you have to remember: Russia and its prime minister can say whatever they want – it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. It takes a majority vote for anything to pass at the ITU. Getting 97 countries to agree on anything is hard enough, suggesting they would agree to hand control of the Internet over to Russia is just silly. Consequently, Russia has scrambled to put together a revised highly watered-down version of its amendments to the regulations.

So why is it a closed-door process? Conspiracy theories aside – the ITU is 147 years old and for many of those years not many in the general public knew of its existence – transparency wasn’t really an issue. There is also a legitimate reason to keep the proceedings private: the ITU makes about 15% of its operational funding from selling access to documents like the ones in question to industry.

And what exactly are these top-secret amendments being proposed this year at WCIT? Well, we live in the Internet age and closed-door processes are hard to keep private – so feel free to view the entire set of documents here. Download the epic 200+ page overview here if you’re feeling ambitious. And if you’re looking for a more user friendly read, check out this piece by US Ambassador David Gross.

Is it likely that censorship regulations will be passed by the ITU? Not likely at all. The United Nations ‘Declaration of Human Rights’, which sets the tone for all the work that the United Nations does, says it quite bluntly: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Additionally the ITU’s own constitution protects the rights for the public to access telecommunications in Article 33: “Member States recognize the right of the public to correspond by means of the international service of public correspondence. […]”

And then there’s always the question of how the ITU could even enforce an Internet censorship regulation. Does the ITU have any enforcement powers? No, it doesn’t. According to UK Wired Magazine, “The ITU has no enforcement mechanism. Treaties do count as international law and states are bound to observe them. But apart from some exceptions such as WTO, there are no enforcement mechanisms if states do not observe them.”

The question remains: what is the big world-ending deal? Who is the enemy? If anything, it is member states like Russia who propose amendments that will never pass and the ITU’s inane lack of transparency that feeds the flames of controversy. Is the ITU or the United Nations trying to power grab the Internet from the citizens of planet Earth? No. This is a flagrant misunderstanding of what the mission of the United Nations is. At the end of the day, the ITU is a standards organization with little enforcement power.

Are there risks? Unfortunately, yes. Even though the United Nations has moved to protect Human Rights on the Internet, worked hard to promote universal access as a means of accomplishing the millenium development goals, and championed for the right of people to get online – there is the possibility that new regulations passed at WCIT-12 could contradict those efforts. Member states may propose regulations that can make it easier to justify censorship or the disconnection of citizens. These are things that member countries can already do to their people, but having the blessing of international law may make it seem like these kinds of activities are somehow less evil.

In summary: although the United Nations isn’t moving to take over the Internet and regulations passed by the ITU aren’t binding and will most likely never effect you as an individual, there is the possibility that bad governments may use new ITU regulations to justify already terrible behavior. So arm your pitchforks and head over to Google and Access Now, there’s an Internet to protect!