The U.N. thinks about tomorrow's cyberspace

The United Nations' Houlin Zhao says the organization should be given more influence over the Internet.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
8 min read
The International Telecommunication Union is one of the most venerable of bureaucracies. Created in 1865 to facilitate telegraph transmissions, its mandate has expanded to include radio and telephone communications.

But the ITU enjoys virtually no influence over the Internet. That remains the province of specialized organizations such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN; the Internet Engineering Task Force; the World Wide Web Consortium; and regional address registries.

The ITU, a United Nations agency, would like to change that. "The whole world is looking for a better solution for Internet governance, unwilling to maintain the current situation," Houlin Zhao, director of the ITU's Telecommunication Standardization Bureau, said last year. Zhao, a former government official in China's Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, has been in his current job since 1999.

Though Zhao is far too diplomatic to state it directly, the ITU's increasing interest in the Internet could presage a power struggle between ITU, ICANN, and perhaps even the U.S. government, which retains some oversight authority over ICANN and appears content with the current structure.

In a series of speeches over the last year, Zhao has suggested that the ITU could become involved in everything from security and spam to managing how Internet Protocol addresses are assigned. The ITU also is looking into some aspects of voice over Internet Protocol--VoIP--communications, another potential area for expansion.

"Countering spam is just one of many elements of protecting the Internet that include availability during emergencies and supporting public safety and law enforcement officials," Zhao wrote in December. Also, he wrote, the ITU "would take care of other work, such as work on Internet exchange points, Internet interconnection charging regimes, and methods to provide authenticated directories that meet national privacy regimes."

CNET News.com recently spoke with Zhao about the ITU's increased interest in the Internet and its involvement in a series of meetings that will conclude in November with a U.N. World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia.

Q: How do you see the ITU becoming involved in Internet governance over the next few years?
Zhao: As you know, Internet governance was one of two hot topics left from the first phase of the U.N. world summit. Unfortunately we did not have a clear definition of Internet governance. Therefore the group established by Mr. Kofi Annan still has to work on these definitions.

Anything which concerns the future development of the Internet will be part of the question of Internet governance. It covers a very wide range of topics not just related to technology development, service development, but also policy matters, sovereignty, security, privacy, almost anything.

I do not consider ICANN an enemy.
According to ITU's definition of "telecommunications," telecommunications covers almost anything. Therefore according to our own lawyers, the Internet is one of these telecommunications mediums. Others argue that "telecommunications" is too wide and it does not include the Internet.

What do you think? Should the ITU be involved in Internet governance?
Zhao: Yes, for sure. ITU should be part of Internet governance. But ITU cannot cover everything.

Does that mean an inevitable conflict with ICANN?
Zhao: I don't think so. Whether we have a conflict with ICANN depends on (many things).

I do not consider ICANN an enemy. We are founding members of ICANN's Protocol Supporting Organization. I myself signed that paper on behalf of the ITU. We tried to support ICANN as far as we

could, but on the other hand you see that ICANN's mandate seems to be a little bit unclear...The U.N. working group on Internet governance provides us with a very good opportunity to look at this issue.

You mentioned a lot of topics--perhaps spam and content could be in there as well. Which ones should the ITU be directly involved in?
Zhao: You can say that the ITU should address those, including spam and security. We have a different concept of security. As far as the (legwork) of security, ITU has worked on this for many, many years...

On privacy, I think that a lot of things are not related to technology only; those are policy matters. Those can be done by the national authorities, regional cooperation and international cooperation. On freedom of speech, I don't see it as a pure technical issue. In my opinion, freedom of speech seems to be a politically sensitive issue. A lot of policy matters are behind it. It's not in ITU's competence, but of course we can make some contributions.

Should ITU run or manage any top-level root servers (the key servers that let people get around on the Internet)?
Zhao: That is a question discussed by a lot of people. Today the management by ICANN (is something that) people consider to be management by the United States, by one government. People definitely want to see some changes. I think everyone would agree that a better arrangement is something that we're looking for.

The ITU is trying to ensure its value. Any public network of communications is naturally of interest to ITU. ITU has a lot of expertise and a lot of experience. (Editor's note: An ITU lawyer said in a follow-up conversation that though the organization may wish to oversee the operation of root servers, it would not run them itself.)

We assign country codes. Some people consider that the top-down approach. I made a proposal for IPv6, that we could look for a new approach based on the experience we have in top-down approaches. Can we find something different? Nobody seems to be confident that ITU's top-down approach is best for IPv6. But nobody is sure that IPv4 bottom-up is best. Can we find something in between? I'm paying attention to that. I have a lot of opinions from ITU members.

Does that mean the ITU would be in the IPv6 allocation business, saying, for instance, that Norway gets 10 trillion addresses and Sweden receives 20 trillion?
Zhao: Yes. I raised that possibility. (I discussed it) not only with government bodies but with industry experts. I did not see them deny that we (could) do that.

But I know this would affect a lot of things. For stability of Internet service, for effective development in the future, we need good cooperation. Right now IPv6 is still not that known to many people in the world. If we have a good understanding of this system, a good management of this, we can avoid problems in the future.

If more and more phone calls move to VoIP, do you see the ITU as becoming irrelevant?
Zhao: I don't have that worry at all. ITU was created in 1865. It has 140 years of history. I don't know if you noted recent news that a very respected academy in the United States said ITU is among the world's most enduring institutions. (Editor's note: This is a reference to a December 2004 report by consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton.)

ITU's situation is similar to the U.S. Constitution. ITU is very dynamic. We try to keep abreast of the latest development of the market and to give assistance to human society for future development. Remember, ITU was created in May 1865 to develop a system for telegraphs.

What do you see as the likely outcome, if any, of the September 2005 World Summit on the Information Society?
Zhao: That is a very good question. If you have a very specific wish to get something from this meeting, and you find that is not the case, you may be disappointed. On the other hand, people find that it's a unique opportunity for us to work together.

If you could get everything you wanted out of the meeting, what would that be?
Zhao: If I could get everything from this meeting....I think all international efforts may not be able to satisfy everybody. We

try to get a compromise. In this meeting we won't make everyone happy.

I understand it may not happen. But if ITU got what it wanted, what would it be?
Zhao: If I could give you my personal views, I would say that if they can charge the U.N. to continue to work on this issue, that would be nice.

On privacy, I think that a lot of things are not related to technology only; those are policy matters.
People talk about whether we should have a new agency rather than give it to an existing agency. But if ICANN, ITU, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) see each other as complementary and try to work together, we don't need to have a special (Internet regulatory) agency to be established.

ICANN is supposed to be independent of the U.S. government. But when DENIC (DENIC registers Internet domains under the German top level domain .de) executives wanted the contract to run the .net registry, they headed to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress and the Bush administration. Is U.S. government involvement viewed as a problem?
Zhao: To some extent, yes. That is why people are raising this issue as a very important one to be debated at the U.N. and in the (World Summit) process. Some people argued very strongly that ICANN's establishment based in California gives people some worries. This issue should be addressed.

If ITU were to allocate addresses, anybody could have a choice between their national assignment or a regional or international assignment. That would be good for the development of the Internet.

The World Summit is being held in Tunisia, which a Paris-based journalist group has called a "predator of press freedom." Does the choice of Tunisia send a symbolic message?
Zhao: I noted this kind of opinion from a very early stage that the decision was announced to have two phases, in Geneva and Tunis. The media seems to have no problem with the first phase in Geneva but they don't think it's a great choice to have the second phase in Tunisia.

I think finding the right place to host an international event is not an easy job. There were not many volunteers to host the second phase. The media thinks that country is not very transparent and open, and therefore that country is not transparent and open. I don't think so.

When a country promises to host a U.N.-type conference, they have to respect the U.N. rules. The U.N. rules are quite clear: If any journalist comes to join this meeting, and a Tunisian authority tries to impose any sanction--I don't think that would happen.

What changes in Internet governance structures might be necessary?
Zhao: First we have to understand what the problem is today. Then we can perhaps understand what will happen.

One of the most important changes was the early stages, when the Internet started, when ICANN started in 1998. The purpose was to exclude governments (but that didn't work). People realize today that the governments worldwide have to play a role.

People say the Internet flourished because of the absence of government control. I do not agree with this view. I argue that in any country, if the government opposed Internet service, how do you get Internet service? If there are any Internet governance structure changes in the future, I think government rules will be more important and more respected.