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Exclusive: ITU 'failed,' says former policy chief

A former telecommunications policy maker at the international organization, which is holding talks in Dubai to expand regulation of the Internet, warns that the group's conference is "absolutely absurd."

The opening ceremony and plenary at the WCIT-12 conference. ITU Secretary General Hamadoun Toure is third from left at the table.

The International Telecommunication Union is "the most failed body in the history of international telecommunications," a former policy chief has told CNET, describing secret talks, Russia's close involvement with the group, and the ITU's Global Cybersecurity Agenda.

Anthony Rutkowski held the position of the ITU's chief of telecommunication regulations and relations between members in the ITU's general secretariat from November 1987 to January 1992. In that capacity, he also served as counselor to the secretary-general, worked for two ITU secretaries-general -- and much more in various capacities for the telecommunications arm of the United Nations.

Speaking to CNET exclusively from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Rutkowski criticized the ITU and warned of the backlash from the international community.

Right now, the U.N.'s ITU continues to host its World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) in Dubai, where member states are arguing over proposed revisions to the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITR) -- which would expand the ITU's jurisdiction over the Internet, such as creating pay-per-use tolls and heightening surveillance and monitoring regulations, and which would give nation states increased control over the Internet.

The ITU has faced increased global opposition in its maneuvering toward treaty negotiation and creations of Internet standards, with democratic and free speech organizations lining up along with Internet giants, such as Google, to the formation of country blocs that include the U.S., the European Parliament, Canada, Mexico and more.

But not everyone is against the ITU's endless wrangling to change the treaties. Critics have been quick to point out that some member states are keen to implement changes that could create state-run and monitored Internets, and changes that could draw back the revenue their telecoms have been bleeding out over the past 15 years of the Internet's growth into telecommunications communication space.

Rutkowski told CNET that some are pushing harder for change. "It appears that Russia, the Arab and African blocs, plus a bunch of other allies have definitely indicated they do," he said. "It's unclear how successful they will be in using ITU instruments and bodies to do this. This concern also applies to the mobile world that walked away from the ITU 15 years ago."

He warned, however: "There is a substantial likelihood that the ITU will just be further shunned by everyone."

The Russian connection
Rutkowski holds the ITU's secretary-general, Hamadoun Touré, accountable for a decade of "spin" and close work with the Russian Delegation -- ostensibly to further advance what Rutkowski sees as an "agenda."

"Touré's technical education was in Russian schools. The official Russian Ministry website on Putin's visit to Geneva hosted by Hamadoun contains surprisingly candid remarks regarding Touré being a 'brother' of Russia, and that Putin anticipated his help in pursuing Russian goals in controlling the Internet. [Touré] is a master at spinning up half truths and all kinds of propaganda to drive the agenda he's been pursuing for the past ten years in the ITU. They get an A-plus for adaptability," Rutkowsdi said. "Classics are things like the ITRs and the ITU being responsible for the Internet's existence, or that the ITU has developed hundreds of security standards used today, or that the [WCIT-12 conference] is all about connecting the world to broadband facilities, or Dr. Vint Cerf and Google are the ones primarily leading a campaign against the ITU."

"The reality is that other than ITU radio spectrum management work, the rest is a worthless institution that does nothing more than flush money into the Geneva economy," Rutkowski added.

In June 2011, then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin met with Touré to remind the secretary-general that Russia co-founded the ITU. The 2011 meeting adds to current controversy backlighting ITU's relationship with Russia. Namely, at that meeting, Putin was quoted as saying that Russia intended to actively participate in "establishing international control over the Internet using the monitoring and supervisory capabilities of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)."

When asked for comment on Putin's 2011 statement last week, ITU's senior communications officer Toby Johnson did not acknowledge CNET's request.

Rutkowski went on: "During the late 1990s, Russia began to pursue secret talks in the U.N. on cyberwarfare. Russia has always favored intergovernmental bodies for this kind of dialogue. The activity was 'sealed' by the U.N. under a special arrangement. I know about it first-hand because at one point in 2007, I was asked to be part of the meeting of one of the subgroups."

He continued: "Soon after taking over as secretary general, Touré eliminated the existing policy planning staff and pulled his own confidants around him. His initial major aegis for moving forward was his Global Cybersecurity Agenda. In all these activities, Russia was a constant ally. Sometimes [Touré] would lead; sometimes Russia. They operated as a tag-team in the forums."

"Russia also got some of its key operatives into different WCIT preparatory and ITU-T security committee leadership positions. You can map many of them to the Russian delegations to both WTSA and WCIT. Russia is typically good at long range planning in these intergovernmental bodies," he said.

According to Rutkowski, recent maneuvering has resulted in stalemates, and highlighted concerns relating to Internet surveillance and monitoring: "A big issue both at the WTSA (World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly) and WCIT (World Conference on International Telecommunications) was the expansion of ITU jurisdiction into Industrial Control Systems, and Cloud Computing facilities. The latter ended in a stalemate at WTSA because Russia continued to insist that cloud security was under the control of ITU-T Study Group 17 - Security [Standards Development], which is led by Russia."

He added: "That group as well as SG11 have been Russian leadership favorites to control content and introduce all kinds of surveillance platforms under different guises."

Rutkowski detailed his work alongside Touré, saying: "Fortunately I only had to deal with him as a member of his so-called High Level Experts Group on Cybersecurity. After he tried to connive a result that the participants would not agree with, he disbanded the group in 2008."

But according to Rutkowski, Touré wanted to expand the ITU's role in tackling cybercrime.

"Among other things, he had visions of the ITU becoming the leading cybercrime organization and developing a new treaty to replace the existing Convention on Cybercrime because for some reason Russia didn't like it. Some months ago he got caught in the middle in doing a deal with Russian cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Labs following a meeting he hosted for Putin. The idea was to have Hamadoun help Kaspersky and vice-versa in using the ITU to provide cybersecurity services."

On May 31, 2012, Touré had issued a press release announcing that via its special relationship with Kaspersky, the ITU was assisting the Iranian government with recently discovered Flame malware. Although the details are not entirely known, according to a subsequent New York Times article it appeared as if Flame may have been deployed by some governments to assess and watch for nuclear security threats. The Federation of American Scientists described the ITU and its role in the matters as a "Multilateral Trust Challenge Example" in its Spring 2012 Public Interest Report on Multilateral Cyber Security Solutions.

Rutkowski said that after public attention focused on the events surrounding Kaspersky and Iran, the special relationship between ITU and Kaspersky "became embarrassing."

The Dubai conference
Propelled by visions of Touré as a "cybersecurity czar" commanding a global cybersecurity cartel to shore up a flagging telecommunications arm of the U.N. aside, the ITU's member states are currently in Dubai arguing over proposals that -- if the leaked documents thus far are any indication -- appear uninformed and nigh on Draconian.

If the nations agree to sign the provisions resulting from proposals made at WCIT-12, the end result may not be as clear-cut as convention would suggest.

Rutkowski said it was, "hard to tell," adding: "That's because many, if not most, also file declarations that say something along the lines that although they are signing, that their national interests will always be first. That is, they may diverge if their national interests dictate otherwise."

The ITU reminds its critics at every public relations juncture that member states do not have to agree to the changes, and may not even implement them (a number of nations -- such as the United States -- have historically ignored the ITU's treaties).

Rutkowski wryly remarked, "Most of the material being stuck into the current new draft is absolutely absurd. Even the 1988 ITRs are a joke. Everyone forgot about them because no one could possibly abide by them as they mandate conformance with ITU-T standards, which are the worst in the world. It has left a 40 year trail of 'road kill' on the information superhighway."

At the start of our interview, Rutkowski stated that, "the ITU has historically not been very open."

As WCIT-12 wraps up this week, what remains to be seen is how member states would use the new treaties to implement new rules within their jurisdictions, such as the recently agreed deep-packet inspection provisions. Rutkowski told CNET that it's not entirely clear the changes actually could be implemented. "Again, the provisions they are proposing are a joke. Most if not all the major nations will simply ignore what is in the draft provisions." Yet Rutkowski pointed out that even still, "Russia and few others may try to exploit the political value."

Some accusations against ITU are damning. When asking Rutkowski the extreme question on some people's minds: if he thought some people's worst fears were intent of the powers at work, to use this as an opportunity to inhibit rights and empower states like Syria or Iran?

He answered, "the Russian proposal pretty much speaks for itself here. They believe that the State's role is to protect the minds of its citizens from being contaminated by information the State deems inappropriate."

Editors' note: CNET reached out to Kaspersky, but did not receive a response at the time of publication. While an ITU spokesperson responded to e-mails, the organization did not offer a comment for publication. If we hear back, we will update the piece.