The Internet as we know it might never have happened if the Comite Consultatif International Telephonique et Telegraphique (CCITT) had not turned down the offer of TCP/IP from Vint Cerf and other Internet pioneers about 35 years ago.
Now we are about to find out if the CCITT's successor organization, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), will succeed in what many people see as an attempt to do now what it refused to do all those years ago.
Take, for now, as an assumption that the IETF would not have come into being if the CCITT had accepted TCP/IP. Take, as well, the assumption that CCITT had developed IP-based applications using the same philosophy that CCITT (and its fellow telecommunications standards development organization, the International Organization for Standardization) have followed since their creation. CCITT and ISO, as a general rule, develop carrier-centric technologies. Their architectural assumption is that networks are brought to customers by telecommunications carriers, and that those carriers also provide whatever network-related services the customer might need (and the carrier decides what the customer needs, not the customer).
In a carrier-centric architecture, telephone companies provide directory and email services rather than enterprises or third parties. In a carrier-centric architecture, telephone companies are the sources of innovation. Imagine, if you will, Tim Berners-Lee attempting to persuade a telephone company that there might be a business opportunity in enabling physicists to use a mouse rather than a keyboard to access information on network servers, or, for that matter, that there was a business in network servers that did something other than place telephone calls.
You might ask why I bring this history and imagined alternate universe up right now. Well, unless you have been living off-net for the last year or so you will know that the ITU is about to convene the self-anointed World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai. Among the hundreds of proposals to revise the ITU's governing treaties are too many that would move the Internet's operations or standardization under the auspices of the ITU, and, in many cases, make significant changes in the way things currently work. I mentioned one of the proposals in this column a few weeks ago.
The Internet, to date, is the only major area of international commerce that has largely escaped regulation. While some of us may think that this has been a much-needed vacuum, many governments strongly disagree. So it is reasonable to worry that the outcome of WCIT will not be something that will make the Internet better for its users.
While it is too late for anyone to fully unwind the decades of Internet-driven innovation, some of the proposals, if enacted, would do material harm to the Internet we currently know. See the Internet Society's WCIT coverage for more information.
The ITU says that the people of the Internet have nothing to fear -- the ITU is not trying to take over the Internet nor will it adopt anything that a member state (country) disagrees with (see "WCIT12 myth busting presentation"). Very few people outside of the ITU accept at face value its claims of benign intentions. A number of its assertions of the lack of worrisome proposals have been shown to be premature or inaccurate.
In any case, we will know in a few weeks what rules the ITU is given to work under, but it will take a lot longer to find out what the ITU will think it can do under those rules.
Disclaimer: Many parts of Harvard expose students to rule sets, but it is up to the students to operationalize them. The university has not provided an opinion on appropriate rules for the ITU nor on the ITU's ability to live within rules, so the above opinion on the first of these is my own. We will have to see over time about the second.