The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is one of the lesser known specialized agencies of the United Nations. Yet, in today’s world, it occupies an important role in shaping our digital life. The ITU’s mandate focuses on ensuring that technical standards adopted by every country are able to communicate with one another, so that no country is left isolated on the internet. For example, the ITU had a leading role in determining what the new 5G mobile networks would look like. In 2015, it endorsed a specific set of standards for 5G in the hopes that all member states would adopt the same regulatory set. If done correctly, this would mean that a 5G phone you bought in North America would work during travel in Europe or Asia.
The ITU has been operating for over 150 years. With our increasing reliance on digital communications through the internet, satellites and mobile networks, it has become an important body to ensure that telecommunication systems can interoperate. However, the direction of its mandate has become increasingly unclear in the last few years. Two competing groups have emerged to try and shape the ITU to their agendas. One group, led by China and Russia, wish to give states greater control and sovereignty over the internet within their borders, so they can decide what is best in their national contexts. The other, led by the United States and most Big Tech companies, sought to enshrine the decentralized nature of the internet where control is mostly in the hands of non-government entities.
These two groups clashed at a 2012 ITU convention, when the group led by China and Russia proposed a large regulatory overhaul. The draft regulation set was laid out a few months before the conference for the considerations by members. This gave a chance for the large western companies, who strongly opposed these measures, to remove op-eds in places like the New York Times, arguing for the regulations to be rejected. Ultimately, they were never adopted, but the conference marked the point where tensions peaked.
Since then, however, a curious realignment has occurred. The China and Russia group kept putting more and more effort into a new top-down proposal to “reinvent the internet”, touting Huawei’s “New IP” technology as the future. While the US, the UK and Europe seem to have embraced greater regulatory control of the internet, by doing so through greater access, not control, it still leaves user data accessible. Both blocks tout different approaches with radically different results, with the commonality being that both groups have a similar aim of somehow gaining more access. This leaves corporations, so far, as the only ones who are touting a continuation of the current unregulated system, which coincidentally puts more power in the hands of those same companies.
To that effect Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff stated in the Financial Times,“Right now we have two versions of the internet — a market-led capitalist version based on surveillance, which is exploitative; and an authoritarian version also based on surveillance” with a distinct lack of a more democratic alternative. Canada is aware of this issue and its importance, as it noted in a 2015 report by Industry Canada evaluating its involvement in the ITU. It specifically lists “Issues Surrounding the Mandate of the ITU, Internet Governance and IC’s Involvement in the ITU-D Sector” as an additional priority.
Stakeholders interviewed in the report listed this as a key issue they thought could merit a study on its own, but there seems to be no such report distributed publicly since 2015. This is therefore an issue defined as important to the country and “key to ensuring future economic opportunities for Canada and Canadians,” but where Canada has not taken a stand or advocated for a clear position. In an age where global networks are already living through a shift with 5G, the Canadian government should use this opportunity to tackle this issue head on and take a leading role in discussions in the ITU. A democratic-based alternative matching its interests and values has yet to be submitted. The Canadian government should not squander this opportunity to shape the future of the internet.
Alex Lussier is an MA candidate at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs studying diplomacy and foreign policy with a focus on the United States.
Banner Image of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Buildings, Geneva, Switzerland by ITU/I. Wood, courtesy of Wikipedia.