ITU in search of relevance in Internet age

Scott Cleland Contributor
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To advance its power grab over Internet governance, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) continues to rewrite Internet history and assert that the ITU was critical to the Internet’s success when it was not. 

A new itublog entitled “The importance of standards in developing an effective Internet,” presents a hubristic re-imagining of the success of the Internet with the ITU at the Internet’s helm. If one read the ITU’s blog and did not know better, one would be left with the impression that the Internet could not, and would not, have succeeded without the ITU beneficently setting international Internet standards.

This could not be further from the truth.

This ITU-standards-are-the-center-of-all-Internet-progress hyperbole is simply the classic politics of taking credit for others work after the fact. The international phenomenon we all know as the Internet occurred in spite of the ITU, not because of it.

The true Internet innovations — that were so useful that most everyone around the world adopted them voluntarily — were: the universal language of Internet protocol and the World Wide Web format for accessing and displaying data. These innovations became de facto international standards — on their own — because they worked best and because the ITU was irrelevant to the task.

The Internet’s voluntary, multi-stakeholder, flexible, bottom-up standards development process of the Internet Society and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is the antithesis of the ITU’s bureaucratic, rigid, top-down standard-setting process.

Frankly, most all of the Internet’s real value comes from the many individuals and stakeholders who voluntarily collaborate to develop working standards and overcome the myriad of real-world problems that must be solved, mitigated or worked around — not from the ITU after-the-fact officially declaring what everyone knows works – works.

After twenty years of no useful participation, the ITU’s current attempt to jump in the front of the Internet parade as the self-appointed Grand Marshall standard-bearer of the Internet is as transparent as it is comical.
The ITU’s big credibility mistake here is vastly overstating the ITU’s role and importance in the success of the Internet. That’s because common sense dictates that what is most important to the Internet’s success is what happens at the front-end – the innovation – not what happens at the back-end – setting standards that most everyone has already adopted on their own.

Simply, innovation is the opposite of standardization or setting standards. The fact that the ITU is so badly blurring the two is exactly the reason why so many fear and resist the ITU having any role whatsoever in Internet governance.

A problem with the ITU over-selling its standards involvement in traditional circuit-switched telecommunications and video broadcasting and transmission, is that it implies incorrectly that the ITU has been instrumental in any way in setting Internet packet-switching and protocol technology standards. It has not been.

Another problem here is the ITU glossing over the fact that traditional phone service did not change much for literally several decades, so the standards successes the ITU is now touting come from a bygone era of slow or less innovation.

The fact that the ITU imagines its traditional standard setting for the slower-moving monopoly telecommunications era somehow suits it for participating in the rapid change and rolling innovation of the competitive Internet era of smart-phones, tablets and voice being an app, is very worrisome.

Yet another problem of the ITU over-selling its importance here is the ITU’s natural bureaucratic tendency to see a nail everywhere because it owns a hammer. This tendency means that the ITU has a natural bias for the old ITU standard over new non-ITU standards and for trying to force new innovations to conform to old ways, which often can impede not advance progress.

In short, the ITU’s standard setting is no more responsible for the international success of the Internet, than then-Senator Al Gore was for “inventing the Internet.”

Scott Cleland is Chairman of NetCompetition a pro-competition e-forum supported by broadband interests and President of Precursor LLC, a research consultancy for Fortune 500 companies. Cleland served as Deputy U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information policy in the George H.W. Bush Administration.

Tags : internet itu
Scott Cleland