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According to the agreement, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan will create a new Internet Governance Forum where the discussions will continue. One group that might organize the forum--and can therefore set the agenda--is the International Telecommunication Union, a U.N. agency based in Geneva.
The ITU is in a unique position. Created in 1865 to facilitate telegraph transmissions, its mandate has steadily expanded to include radio and telephone communications, and its annual budget now tops $530 million.
Through its standards arm, the ITU remains involved in crafting protocols used in everything from DSL (digital subscriber line) to video conferencing. But its broader international-coordination mandate is being threatened by the shrinking importance of the traditional telephone system--and the rise of Skype and other forms of packet-based Internet calling.
The ITU doesn't have any day-to-day responsibility over the Internet, and Western businesses and the U.S. government would like to keep it that way. In addition, a power struggle over the creation of the Internet Governance Forum is developing with the Virginia-based Internet Society, meaning the ITU's management of the forum is not guaranteed.
CNET News.com spoke about these topics with Robert Shaw, the ITU's Internet strategy and policy adviser.
Q: There's lots of talk in Washington about the dangers of the U.N. becoming more involved in Internet governance. But the ITU already is involved in DSL standards, international-spectrum management, and so on. What's going on?
Shaw: I guess one has to differentiate between more political bodies like the U.N. and specialized technical agencies like the ITU, which is involved in a lot of the technical standards used in the Internet right now.
I remember reading one senator saying that the ITU is threatened by VoIP. He probably doesn't know that the most widely used VoIP protocol, H.323, comes from the ITU. I guess that means we have to be frightened by ourselves.
They're probably not aware that most of the broadband connectivity they're using at home probably comes from ITU standards, particularly DSL. So the ITU is already heavily involved in Internet standards. The most important work we're doing right now is next-generation networks, converged television-Internet type networks.
So you make a distinction between standards-setting and regulating?
Shaw: Absolutely. Sometimes standards have policy and regulatory implications. For instance, the ITU does standards in naming, numbering and addressing. Like ENUM or the global telephone numbering plan. That's always been an area where there's been great sensitivity to the sovereignty (of individual nations).
That's an area where we do technical standards but they have policy and regulatory implications. Member states have a regulatory oversight, the right to have a last say.
Nobody in the U.S. Congress really seems worried about technical standards. They're worried about a U.N. agency becoming an Internet regulator.
Shaw: The problem is that people envision the ITU as a super-FCC or something like that. The main objective of the ITU is to foster cooperation between the governments and the private sector for global communications. For example, broadband. We've done a lot of policy and regulatory studies about building out broadband. Korea's done a fantastic job. Other countries are interested in how Korea did it. We exchange best practices.
It's drilled into our heads from day one at the ITU that national bodies regulate. We just try to play a facilitating role.
ITU Secretary-General Yoshio Utsumi said this week that he anticipates your organization taking the lead on creating this new Internet Governance Forum. What does that mean?
Shaw: I think what he was probably referring to was the language in (the agreement that mentions ITU). What this is saying here is that the ITU has demonstrated in the WSIS process how to have a multi-stakeholder discussion on issues related to Internet governance. They're saying that this expertise should be recognized in how you set up the Internet governance forum. I'd imagine we would play an appropriate role.
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