Internet/Telecom ‘Convergence’ and Global Internet Governance

25 October 2013 - A Workshop on Critical Internet Resources in Bali, Indonesia


At the conclusion of the December 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), Dr. Hamadoun I. Touré, Secretary General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), observed that, “The word ‘Internet’ was repeated throughout this conference and I believe this is simply a recognition of the current reality – the two worlds of telecommunications and Internet are inextricably linked.”  Indeed, although proposals to explicitly add the Internet to ITU’s standard definition of telecommunications (“Any transmission, emission or reception of signs, signals, writing, images and sounds or intelligence of any nature by wire, radio, optical or other electromagnetic systems”) failed to gain the necessary support, some governments indicated that they believed the Internet is already covered by the definition and may thus be subject to relevant provisions of the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITR).  Concerns about the possibility of such expansive interpretations in the implementation phase helped to fuel controversy over treaty provisions that otherwise might seem anodyne and ultimately contributed to a sharply divided outcome, with 89 countries stating they would sign the ITRs and 55 saying that they would not.
This meta-tension underlying the WCIT negotiations was merely an extension of the long-running debate about the so-called convergence and contestable boundaries between telecommunications and the Internet.  Seemingly off the radars of Internet governance discussions that are preoccupied with Internet names and numbers or content-related matters, the global telecommunications industry is a heavy presence in the Internet environment.  Dominant telecommunications carriers handle much of the Internet traffic and control the related markets; Internet-based services are intermingling with other services from both functional and marketing standpoints; many Public Switched Telephone Networks are or will be moving to IP-based architectures; and not surprisingly, telecommunications policy bodies at both the national and global levels have undertaken extensive work programs on IP networks, including their standardization, deployment, governance and responsibilities.  Nevertheless, there are long-standing divides between the communities of expertise and practice involved in telecommunications and in the Internet that have made it difficult to openly discuss whether and in what manner the two domains are, as SG Touré put it, “inextricably linked,”  and the implications for global Internet governance, broadly defined.
Accordingly, the purpose of this workshop is to take note of the elephant in the room and foster an open multistakeholder dialogue about its shape and significance.  With a continuous stream of relevant negotiations and policy debates on the horizon, is it possible to define boundaries and relationships between the two domains that are technologically sound and politically sustainable?  Are changes needed in the economic organization of Internet interconnection and traffic management, as some telecommunications carriers insist?  Can there be a meeting of minds, or a mutually satisfying modus vivendi, between the stakeholders, standardization models, and global policy processes involved in each of these worlds?  The workshop will explore these and related questions.