So what about the “UN takeover of the Internet” meme attributed to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT)? This was always just a soundbite to capture public attention. Taken literally, it implies a rather fanciful appraisal of the ITU's capacity to affect existing Internet governance arrangements.
Much was made of a side-resolution made at WCIT, “Fostering an Enabling Environment for the Internet,” which doesn't form part of the binding ITRs (a vital point missed by commentators). It is true that this resolution declares that “all governments should have an equal role and responsibility for international Internet governance,” and that this isn't really an accurate reflection of the multi-stakeholder model by which the Internet policies have been developed to date.
However, this is a battle that was fought and lost in 2005, when that language first appeared in a consensus statement of another ITU-organised conference, the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). The United States agreed to that language as part of a hard-fought compromise, recognising many countries' discomfort over its unilateral control over Internet naming and numbering, through a contractual relationship between ICANN and the United States Department of Commerce. That relationship continues, and that discomfort has in no way abated. The WCIT side-resolution was in part a ham-fisted way for those countries to remind the United States of this.
The tussle over the wording of this resolution, and the procedural acrobatics that enabled the Chair to declare it adopted on a show of hands despite no vote being recorded, was undoubtedly a factor in the ultimate failure of the ITRs. But the final sticking point was a provision proposed for the preamble by the African bloc, stating “These Regulations recognize the right of access of Member States to international telecommunication services.” The United States could not accept this given its long-standing embargo against US-based companies providing Internet services to Cuba (only recently bypassed with the installation of a fibre-optic communications link between Cuba and Venezuela).
When Iran pushed a vote on this provision, which the US and its allies lost, the chance of agreement being reached at all effectively died, and so for the first time in the ITU's history, it failed to reach consensus on the new ITRs.
Other countries do have good cause to challenge the hegemony of the United States in existing Internet governance arrangements. More broadly all stakeholders in concert do need to come up with better global mechanisms for developing shared principles to guide the regulation of Internet content and services. At WSIS there was correctly found to be “a vacuum within the context of existing structures, since there is no global multi-stakeholder forum to address Internet-related public policy issues.” But the ITU is not the right institution to fill that vacuum.
To make that point didn't necessarily require a hardline refusal to allow any Internet-related text into the ITRs. ITU Secretary General Hamadoun Touré correctly stated at the conclusion of WCIT that “the two worlds of telecommunications and Internet are inextricably linked.” In truth, the ITU has been involved with technical aspects of Internet governance for some time, and in the absence of a better multi-stakeholder model for Internet policy development, calls for it to do more will continue.
The elusive demons in the text of the ITRs are a distraction from the ITU's real shortcomings, which are deficiencies of process. Those deficiencies, long understood by insiders, are now out in the open: the use of closed-door private negotiations to develop text, the manner in which the Chair unilaterally declared a consensus on the problematic Internet resolution, the way in which Iran forced a vote on the African bloc amendment to the preamble, and above all, the fact that ultimately only governments had a seat at the table.
Such an outdated intergovernmental model is no way to run the Internet, and everybody bar ITU hardliners agree on that. Just as we wouldn't allow the Freemasons to oversee the construction industry, we shouldn't allow the ITU's club of governments to dictate standards for our Internet, when it doesn't allow the community to fully and actively participate in the development of those standards.
Thus rather than being due to any major flaws in the text, the fate of the ITRs is symptomatic of the ITU's failure to meet the Internet community's standards of multi-stakeholder governance. This doesn't mean that the ITU is a willing tool of repressive regimes, hell-bent on placing the Internet under a single world government. Neither does it imply that the ITU doesn't do good work in other fields, such as in its development and capacity building activities. But it does mean that it's the wrong body to make global standards for the Internet, and as such will likely continue its inexorable decline into irrelevance, alongside the realm of voice communications over which it once held sway.
The widespread demonisation of the ITU and of its members, on the other hand, was another failure of the WCIT process – and that wasn't the ITU's failure, but ours.