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U.N. says its plans are misunderstood

ITU Internet policy adviser Robert Shaw is at center of debate over future of Internet.

TUNIS, Tunisia--The last-minute deal between the United States and its critics at a summit here merely postpones a debate about Internet management to next year.

According to the agreement, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan will create a new Internet Governance Forum where the discussions will continue. One group that might organize the forum--and can therefore set the agenda--is the International Telecommunication Union, a U.N. agency based in Geneva.

The ITU is in a unique position. Created in 1865 to facilitate telegraph transmissions, its mandate has steadily expanded to include radio and telephone communications, and its annual budget now tops $530 million.

The main objective of the ITU is to foster cooperation between the governments and the private sector for global communications.

Through its standards arm, the ITU remains involved in crafting protocols used in everything from DSL (digital subscriber line) to video conferencing. But its broader international-coordination mandate is being threatened by the shrinking importance of the traditional telephone system--and the rise of Skype and other forms of packet-based Internet calling.

The ITU doesn't have any day-to-day responsibility over the Internet, and Western businesses and the U.S. government would like to keep it that way. In addition, a power struggle over the creation of the Internet Governance Forum is developing with the Virginia-based Internet Society, meaning the ITU's management of the forum is not guaranteed.

CNET spoke about these topics with Robert Shaw, the ITU's Internet strategy and policy adviser.

Q: There's lots of talk in Washington about the dangers of the U.N. becoming more involved in Internet governance. But the ITU already is involved in DSL standards, international-spectrum management, and so on. What's going on?
Shaw: I guess one has to differentiate between more political bodies like the U.N. and specialized technical agencies like the ITU, which is involved in a lot of the technical standards used in the Internet right now.

I remember reading one senator saying that the ITU is threatened by VoIP. He probably doesn't know that the most widely used VoIP protocol, H.323, comes from the ITU. I guess that means we have to be frightened by ourselves.

They're probably not aware that most of the broadband connectivity they're using at home probably comes from ITU standards, particularly DSL. So the ITU is already heavily involved in Internet standards. The most important work we're doing right now is next-generation networks, converged television-Internet type networks.

So you make a distinction between standards-setting and regulating?
Shaw: Absolutely. Sometimes standards have policy and regulatory implications. For instance, the ITU does standards in naming, numbering and addressing. Like ENUM or the global telephone numbering plan. That's always been an area where there's been great sensitivity to the sovereignty (of individual nations).

That's an area where we do technical standards but they have policy and regulatory implications. Member states have a regulatory oversight, the right to have a last say.

Nobody in the U.S. Congress really seems worried about technical standards. They're worried about a U.N. agency becoming an Internet regulator.
Shaw: The problem is that people envision the ITU as a super-FCC or something like that. The main objective of the ITU is to foster cooperation between the governments and the private sector for global communications. For example, broadband. We've done a lot of policy and regulatory studies about building out broadband. Korea's done a fantastic job. Other countries are interested in how Korea did it. We exchange best practices.

It's drilled into our heads from day one at the ITU that national bodies regulate. We just try to play a facilitating role.

ITU Secretary-General Yoshio Utsumi said this week that he anticipates your organization taking the lead on creating this new Internet Governance Forum. What does that mean?
Shaw: I think what he was probably referring to was the language in (the agreement that mentions ITU). What this is saying here is that the ITU has demonstrated in the WSIS process how to have a multi-stakeholder discussion on issues related to Internet governance. They're saying that this expertise should be recognized in how you set up the Internet governance forum. I'd imagine we would play an appropriate role. One part of the agreement says that the forum should be "lightweight and decentralized" and subject to periodic review.
Shaw: There's a bit of constructive ambiguity here that lets flexibility in the future...In this text, at least, a forum is not necessarily seen as a permanent institution.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan says he wants to review this forum's work in five years. Does that mean that the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers could be folded into the forum at that time? Or the converse?
Shaw: I can see several scenarios. One of the best results is that technology solves some of the problems. We have a distributed root for the telephone system. Maybe we can have a distributed root in the DNS (Domain Name System) that would let these possibilities go away.

The second thing is that we have to realize we're in a time of transition in terms of how government policy-makers and regulators think of the Internet. If we think of the time when ICANN was established, that was the apex of the thinking that "there shall never be any regulation of the Internet." Fast-forward seven years and the landscape has changed incredibly. We see governments around the world, including the FCC, applying the same kind of regulations they applied in the telephony world.

I'm not sure that answers my question about ICANN and the forum.
Shaw: I think back to a piece Eli Noam wrote in the New York Times circa 1997. It was called "An Unfettered Internet, Keep Dreaming." It was a critique of e-commerce policy and said each government is going to apply its own value system to the Internet. The Internet has become so pervasive it's difficult to treat it differently.

You can try to ban spam at a national level. But you need international cooperation to deal with it. You have tension between national interests and international cooperation.

One hot topic is who can add new top-level domain names. How much of that should be a technical compared to a policy decision?
Shaw: Until one resolves this question about whether this is a technical issue or a regulatory issue it's very hard for ICANN to succeed in its mission. Now the governments are saying here (in this agreement) that there are a number of cross-cutting public policy issues that require attention.

What does this agreement mean for the future of spam regulation?
Shaw: We just had a paper presented a couple of days ago that was done in conjunction with Harvard, a model law for spam based on an industry code of conduct backed by regulators. I don't see right now any overarching treaty on spam coming but there's a lot of efforts. ITU, OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), and APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) are meeting to see how we can avoid duplication of effort.

Some delegates have been complaining that there's too much free speech online. What expertise do autocrats from nations like Cuba and Zimbabwe have to lend in discussions of the Internet's future?
Shaw: I firmly believe having worked in international organizations for over 20 years that we can often learn something from many different countries. Some countries like Korea are very successful in broadband. In Brazil, 95 percent of people file taxes online. So I avoid focusing on the negative aspects.

The Internet seems to have been running pretty well without an official international U.N. forum. Why do we need one?
Shaw: It's clear that a lot of people feel left out of the policy dialogue. They don't feel like they have a lot of influence or say in how decisions are made. And in the case of developing countries it's important to hear their voice, to hear what they say. You can't just say, "We know what's best for you." They're the people who are going to have to go back home and adapt their national policies accordingly.

That's one aspect. The other is that clearly a lot of governments feel that there are deficiencies in the current system and they don't feel like what they consider to be a legitimate public policy interest is reflected. And they feel there should be change.