The ITU/WCIT: Thinking About Internet Regulatory Policy From An LDC Perspective?

Posted on October 11, 2012

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Note, this flows from a discussion that initially took place on a listserve sponsored by ISOC on Internet Policy.

The extended discussion is probably only for those with an interest in Internet Governance issues and particularly as they apply to the regulatory regimes (and policy stances) of Less Developed Countries and I would point those with such an interest to research papers prepared by Michael Kende of the consulting firm AnalysysMason on behalf of Amazon, AT&T, Cisco Systems, Comcast, Google, Intel, Juniper Networks, Microsoft, National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), News Corporation, Oracle, Telefónica, Time Warner Cable, Verisign, and Verizon.

specifically:

Driving broadband connectivity in Africa: regulatory issues and market challenges Roz Roseboro and Robert Schumann, December 2011

and

Internet global growth: lessons for the future, September 2012, Michael Kende

I should say that both of these reports are very interesting and contain a wealth of good information, however, the problem that I have with them and particularly the second report is that it so clearly starts off with its policy conclusion and builds a case to support this.  This is not an area of particular expertise for me but my gut is that the conclusions as to the appropriate policy regime for Least Developed Countries (the apparent target for the second policy report from Michael Kende) would look quite different if it was done from/by folks from LDC’s rather than sponsored as Kende’s report was by Google, Cisco, Amazon, Microsoft and so on and so on.

I’m not exactly sure what the LDC sponsored report would say but my guess would be that they would focus rather more on looking at how costs and benefits are and should be distributed as between some of the wealthiest companies from some of the wealthiest countries and LDC’s looking to increase Internet access overall in environments of very low incomes, very difficult physical environments, extremely weak regulatory and taxation regimes, and vast areas and populations who might under some circumstances derive benefit from Internet access but who would under almost any conceivable current situation find paying for this almost impossible.

My hunch is that they wouldn’t start out with indicating as the number one recommendation of the report — the basic point of the overall report from what I can see — the overwhelming importance of:

“Promoting network infrastructure: (by a) Focus on increasing investments throughout the network, from mobile broadband access through national and cross-border connectivity and IXPs, by removing roadblocks to lower the cost of investment, including allocating spectrum for mobile broadband or limiting licensing requirements and fees, in order to promote competitive entry and growth.”

From what I am seeing (and Kende’s report is as good a signal as any) the Internet biggies are running a bit scared (the term “moral panic” comes to mind) as to what “madness” might come out of the World Conference on International Telecommunications meeting that the ITU is hosting in December in Dubai. And they are pulling out all the stops in trying to derail any real discussion on how the costs and benefits might be allocated of improving/extending Internet access in and into LDC’s and within LDC’s to the other 99% or so in those countries who currently have no possible means of access. This is of course, because the ITU as the traditional venue for global telecom “governance” includes among its 195 or so Member States a very goodly proportion, probably a majority, who are currently experiencing net costs (including many regimes who see these costs in terms of lost political control) from Internet access and particularly if attempts at extending access to rural and maginalized populations are taken into consideration, rather than net benefits and not surprisingly they are looking at ways of righting that balance.

And so instead of actually sitting down and trying to figure out a global regime for Internet (and possibly other) governance, that might in some sense lead to an equitable distribution of costs and benefits the biggies are launching verbal, research and whatever types of broadsides infinite amounts of money, easy access to expertise and the current ascendance of neo-libertarian (anti-State, anti-tax) ideology can muster.

I myself am of two minds on this issue.  I well recognize the value/benefits that could flow from Internet access even to the poorest of the poor and the overwhelming benefits that Internet access provides to those for example in civil society who can take advantage of its more or less unlimited free flow of communications and information (including through undermining various repressive political regimes). On the other hand, the unlimited unregulated policy environment advocated by reports like that of Kende and others of that ideological ilk would I think, lead almost directly to a further enrichment of the already stupendously wealthy and overall a significant transfer of wealth and benefit from those with the least to those with the most.

The challenge I think is to recognize both of the above as equally likely/possible outcomes.  This implies the need to design and implement a global regime which ensures the possibility of universal access to the benefits of the Internet while ensuring that the provision of these opportunities does not further immiserate those currently least able to obtain these benefits at least in part by destroying the means by which such possible access to benefits could through public intervention, regulation and yes, even taxation ensure that such a possibility of benefits can be translated into actuality.

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