from Net Politics and Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program

The Problem With the United Nations Setting Tech Standards for Your Internet Devices

September 22, 2016

CFR Cyber Net Politics WTSA Tunisia
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Dominique Lazanski lives and works in London. She has over 16 years of experience working in the Internet industry. She is writing in a personal capacity and her views do not necessarily reflect those of her employer. 

This fall, the future of the digital economy is at stake. From October 24 to November 3, a United Nations conference held by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) will determine how countries—especially developing countries—shape regulation for current and future technologies at the World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly (WTSA-16) in Hammamet, Tunisia.

The choices made in Tunisia will affect tech development everywhere, and the globe’s poorest have the most to lose. Last year, as part of the sustainable development goals (SDGs), world leaders at the UN agreed to work toward providing universal and affordable internet access in developing countries by 2020. Well developed, well thought out standards are essential to meet that goal.

Unfortunately, the current ITU is not the best venue for developing standards that will shape the future of our internet-connected devices, and through them, our increasingly internet-connected lives. In recent years, many countries have used the ITU as a forum to get an international seal of approval on national standards that they are unable to get past multistakeholder standards setting bodies.

Rather than playing to its traditional strengths and building on past successes, the ITU today is seeking to expand its scope across a wide variety of new areas from internet of things (IoT) platforms to mobile app security to anti-theft mechanisms for mobile handsets. Not only does this needlessly duplicate existing standards work—it often results in conflicting guidance that is technologically a generation behind.

The ITU is even breaking from its usual technology-neutral stance by backing a specific, proprietary technology, Digital Object Architecture (DOA), which assigns a unique identifier to each digital object to track everything from mobile handsets to IoT devices. This threatens to kill off the diverse ecosystem of coexisting or competing identifiers that we already have. In addition, a number of governments are proposing central databases using this system to register every connected device and everyone who uses those devices.

And now the ITU is hosting a conference whose outcome will set the rules for the next phase of the world’s digital revolution. If the ITU were to create detrimental, binding standards rules at WTSA-16 would provide a global blueprint for bad regulation across member states. This October, mobile money, counterfeit and stolen devices, over the top content, IPv6 numbering, and the internet of things will all be at the top of the agenda.

Unfortunately, in a forum where only governments have a vote, short-term politics too often trumps long-term thinking. And the countries with the most to gain economically and technically from flexible and agile standards are the very same countries that tend to support binding and counterproductive ITU standards.

In the face of these dangers, countries committed to the current open digital world need to come to Tunisia and defend it, not just for their sake but on behalf of all those who will otherwise live with the consequences.

Still, even the WTSA-16 is not the end. We need a long term solution.  It is well past the time to accept that standards development has evolved away from multinational and intergovernmental institutions in favour of organisations where all can participate on an equal footing.  Such standards development organizations (SDOs) are more nimble than the ITU, and can take advantage of rapid technological advancements.

The foundations for today’s digital revolution were not laid according to a UN plan, but through a much more open process of standards development. Right now, standards for the internet, mobile technologies, and the internet of things are being developed in numerous, and global, standards development organisations and other groups include the Internet Engineering Task Force, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the European Telecommunications Standards Institute. These and many other forums are open to governments and industry along with technical experts and any others who wish to participate.

Today, about four billion people are still waiting for access to the Internet. Satisfying their demand, and meeting the SDG targets, will require technology experts and users to bring real world considerations, use cases, factors, data, and aspirations to the standards-making table. And it is vital that policymakers understand how standards can have profound global consequences.

Connecting those who are unconnected deserves everyone’s attention. It could be slowed, if not stymied, without full national and multistakeholder support at WTSA-16.

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