Looking forward to a future Internet

Now that the WCIT is over what does the future of the Internet look like?

Going into last month the future of the Internet, to borrow a phrase from the great film noir movie "A Touch of Evil," looked like it may have been all used up. The feeling of the traditional telephone folk and controlling governments was that the Internet had done just about enough of this changing the future stuff -- thanks very much -- now it was time for a bit of control. But the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai did not turn out quite the way that those who would control the Internet wanted. Nor, did the WCIT turn out quite the way that those of us who wanted a more hands-off future would have liked. 

Going into last month the future of the Internet, to borrow a phrase from the great film noir movie "A Touch of Evil," looked like it may have been all used up. The feeling of the traditional telephone folk and controlling governments was that the Internet had done just about enough of this changing the future stuff -- thanks very much -- now it was time for a bit of control. But the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai did not turn out quite the way that those who would control the Internet wanted. Nor, did the WCIT turn out quite the way that those of us who wanted a more hands-off future would have liked.

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One thing that is quite striking when you read the final revised treaty is how mired in traditional telephony assumptions it is. These agreements are all about making old-fashioned telephone calls over old-fashioned telephone networks. In particular, the agreements assume that the carrier is directly involved in providing voice service to their customers. This type of thing is still very relevant when it comes to the cellular telephone world, but there is decreasing reason for it to be the case even there. Voice over IP technology, such as Skype, means that there is nothing special about phone calls in the Internet age -- every thing is just bits over the 'Net. There is no technical requirement that the carrier that brings you the Internet service has to be at all involved in the services that run over the network, services that include voice communications.

So if the future of the Internet is not all used up, what can we expect over this new year? For one thing, those that want to change the Internet to make it fit the mold established by telephone companies a hundred years ago will not stop their efforts. As I was writing this, a headline flashed on Bloomberg TV that said France was thinking of charging Google to pay for the bandwidth it uses -- in spite of the fact that Google already pays for its Internet connections and Internet subscribers in France pay to use the Internet -- an Internet that includes Google.

Eighty-nine out of 150 countries attending have signed the WCIT documents. Just about all of the signers included some level of reservation with their signature. (See http://files.wcitleaks.org/public/S12-WCIT12-C-0066!!MSW-E.pdf and http://files.wcitleaks.org/public/S12-WCIT12-C-0067!!MSW-E.pdf) Some of the countries that did not sign will do so after discussing it internally and others, including the United States, may never sign. Even those that do sign may withdraw the signature or add to their reservations after their internal ratification processes play out. The countries that do ratify the treaty will have some additional blessing to limit the Internet in their countries and may use that blessing to push through controls that they likely could legally have done anyway.

Despite the WCIT process, it looks like the Internet will continue to be a force for technological and business change. At least, until we have to go through the same sort of fire drill for the ITU's 2014 Plenipotentiary Conference in Busan, Korea. The Plenipotentiary Conference is where the ITU decides on its own, supposedly within whatever constraints the treaties agreed to at the WCIT include, what its powers are and what it will do.

Disclaimer: Most organizations, including Harvard, do engage in some self-determination of role and authority, but most do not think they can run the Internet. In any case, the above is my own review and prediction.

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