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November 26, 2012

International Telecommunications Union Under Fire Over Leaked Plans

By Steve Anderson, Contributing TMCnet Writer

Give the UN agency, known as the International Telecommunications Union, (ITU) credit: they're being pro-active, and are ramping up a social media campaign about their plans to work up a new telephone treaty in Dubai. The problem is that much of the opposition to the ITU's plan regards their work as a backdoor path to regulating the Internet--especially in the wake of an internal planning document that appeared on WCITLeaks on Saturday--and that's something few outside of the ITU itself seem interested in seeing come to pass.

The ITU planning document detailed what looked like increasing panic on the ITU's part as more and more of the world finds itself arrayed against the ITU's goals, and the ITU responding with what looks like outright paranoia. The document contained references to the belief that they're under attack by "a well-financed and well-organized campaign originating in the USA" with the long-term goal being to "discredit the ITU and WCIT (World Conference on International Communications)".

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The document emerged following a two-day meeting the ITU undertook, which featured several media consultants helping the ITU attempt to build a strategy designed at stemming the flow of seemingly global outrage targeting the ITU's efforts. That same kind of global outrage recently sounded a death knell for the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), as well as for United States' efforts SOPA and PIPA, which were originally thought to have little opposition.

In a bid to tamp down some of that firestorm, the ITU is looking to launch a counter-campaign geared at showing the value of what it's planning to do, a move that is seen as a good idea given the lack of transparency involved in the proceedings. The ITU, ironically, calls its proceedings "completely transparent" as all 193 voting nations have access to what's going on, but those outside of the voting nations have to buy their access by joining the ITU at a cost of around $20,000 per year.

Worse, the material that's leaking out shows some rather dangerous--for the Internet, and by extension its users--plans, including some transfer over domain names from ICANN to the ITU, and other changes to both the architecture and the governance of the Internet itself. These points are seen to contradict earlier statements from the ITU that they have no interest in doing any of the things that the leaked material says they do.

Needless to say, this doesn't sound like transparency, but rather obfuscation at its most insidious. When one thing comes out of the ITU's mouthpieces and another thing comes out of their leaked documents, it's enough to make people nervous and eventually angry. Further, the use of a social media campaign to defend against such outrage likely won't prove to be much help as the reaction to the social media will likely be scoffing in the direction of "more double-talk from the ITU". Who will take the tweets, likes, and +1's of the ITU seriously, knowing that somewhere there's a document in the ITU that probably contradicts everything else they're saying?

The ITU's own credibility problem is likely to be its biggest problem going forward, especially when word from its own playbook reportedly advises spokesmen to evade questions about taxes and censorship and instead stick to a canned line about how much potential their changes have to "pave the way for a broadband revolution in the 21st century". The WCIT meeting is just weeks away, and its end result may well change the Internet as we know it. Just how, however, remains to be seen.

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Edited by Brooke Neuman
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