IETF vs. ITU: Internet standards face-off

All eyes on World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai

A battle is brewing between two standards bodies - the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) - over which group will be the primary source of the underlying communications protocols that allow the Internet to operate in the future.

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Since 1986, the IETF has been the Internet's primary standards body. The all-volunteer group of network engineers has developed many of the most popular Internet standards including the Internet Protocol and the next-generation IPv6 through a process committed to "rough consensus and running code." Among the IETF's hundreds of innovations are standards for e-mail, domain names, network management and VoIP.

The ITU, on the other hand, was established in 1865 to ease connectivity of the first telegraph and then telephone networks. Today it oversees global radio spectrum, satellite orbits and other carrier-centric technologies through formal development and review processes. The ITU's members include countries and private companies, rather than individuals. It has created popular standards for video compression, broadband and wave division multiplexing.

Until now, the ITU has mostly taken a hands-off approach to the Internet. But that could change in December, when the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) is held in Dubai. This two-week conference will be the first major revision of the international treaties that define the ITU's role since 1988.

The WCIT will make changes to the International Telecommunication Regulations - or ITR - which facilitate global interconnection and interoperability of telecommunications traffic. The ITR sets rules for traffic flows, quality of service as well as routing and billing between network operators.

The Internet Society, which is the umbrella organization for the IETF as well as a member of the ITU, is concerned about the ITU taking a harder line on Internet governance. ISOC argues that it is critical that the Internet retain key principles in the future, specifically that it allow for open access, permission-less innovation and collaboration in order for it to continue to be an engine of economic growth.

ISOC is concerned about proposals from ITU member states that deal with such issues as peering arrangements because this could impact the cost of international Internet traffic and how users pay for Internet services. Other proposals could give governments more leeway with regard to censorship and content control or could limit data privacy. Governments could get involved in Internet address allocation, which is currently handled by the regional Internet registries. Another worry is that more regulation by the ITU will result in a slowing of innovation on the Internet.

"The Internet Society believes that decisions made by governments at WCIT could redefine the international regulatory environment for the Internet and telecoms in the 21st century and beyond, impacting how people around the world are able to use the Internet," the group states on its Web site.

ISOC isn't the only group that's concerned about WCIT. The U.S. House of Representatives voted unanimously in August to send a message to the ITU that the Internet doesn't need additional regulation. The proposal that sparked the ire of the Congress would allow countries to tax incoming and outbound telecommunications traffic and impose Internet traffic termination fees.

Internet pioneers such as Scott Bradner are worried about a proposal that would apply the telephone-oriented concept of the "sender party network pays" to the Internet. Bradner argues that this principle would threaten free content on the Internet by requiring content providers to pay ISPs to deliver data to customers.

With WCIT opening on Dec. 3, the debate surrounding the role that ITU should play in Internet standardization and regulation will likely reach a fevered pitch in the days ahead.

For example, Google made a public announcement in favor of a continued free and open Internet and against what it calls "closed-door meetings" by government regulators at the ITU. Google launched an online pledge that it calls "Take Action" for Internet users to sign in protest of WCIT.

In response, the ITU issued a blog post criticizing Google for erroneously saying WCIT will be a forum for increased censorship and regulation of the Internet. ITU argues that Google should have joined the group as a member if it wanted more access to its proceedings.

"ITU's goal is to continue enabling the Internet as it has done since the Internet's inception," the ITU assured.

To keep an eye on the fireworks between the IETF and the ITU during December, visit this compendium of WCIT-related news that's being compiled by the Internet Society.

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