The World Congress on Information Technology (WCIT) has opened today, but has been overshadowed by allegations that the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is plotting to take control of the internet at the behest of states like China, Russia and others.
Those plans were made clear in the mercifully brief opening speech to the Congress given by United Nations (UN) secretary-general Ban Ki-moon. He said that the objective of the conference was to "ensure universal access to the benefits of information and communication technology – including for the two-thirds of the world's population currently not online."
He continued: "The management of information and communication technology should be transparent, democratic and inclusive of all stakeholders. I am pleased that you have taken steps to open the process – including the vital voices of civil society and the private sector. The UN system stands behind the goal of an open internet."
Ban Ki-moon added that the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights "guarantees freedom of expression across all media and all frontiers" – which will be news to people in most countries of the world – and went on, "the free flow of information and ideas is essential – for peace, for development, for our common progress... We must continue to work together and find consensus on how to most effectively keep cyberspace open, accessible, affordable and secure".
Devil in the detail
However, much of the devil will be in the detail of those words, which various countries and special interest groups have used as a cover to push their particular demands.
This year's WCIT is particularly important as its purpose is to negotiate new international telecom regulations. Lobbyists of all stripes, therefore, including repressive national governments and telecoms companies sidelined by the popularity of the internet, have also poured unprecedented efforts into behind-the-scenes lobbying campaigns in a bid to have the rules bent in their favour.
For example, the European Telecommunications Network Operators (ETNO), of which Vodafone is a member, is lobbying to make internet companies pay for the bandwidth generated by user demand under the "sender pays" principle. That would place Google with a huge bill for sending YouTube videos around the world – rather than the internet service provider from where the request originated from.
Telecoms companies argue that the amount of "commodity" bandwidth they need to build to support fast-increasing amounts of traffic requires regulation to establish a universal payment mechanism between network carriers. This would be similar to the interconnection rules that govern international telephone calls – rules that also make international phone calls very expensive.
Google and other content providers, meanwhile, have been lobbying against such proposals as it would mean they would either have to drastically curtail their activities or to charge users in some way.
More ominously, a number of national governments are demanding that the internet's key government organisations should be placed under the "democratic" control of the ITU, away from the US, so that all countries' governments would be able to decide how it develops according to majority vote.