What is the ITU? The Struggle for Internet Governance
What is the ITU? The Struggle for Internet Governance
What is the ITU? The Struggle for Internet Governance

    Get Involved Today

    Another storm is brewing over Internet governance. Several
    countries, including Russia, China, and India, have proposed empowering the
    International Telecommunication Union (ITU) –
    a specialized agency of the United Nations –
    to oversee various aspects of Internet governance. The issue will come to a
    head in December, when the 193 member states of the ITU convene at the World
    Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai to vote on these

    This raises three important questions: who regulates the
    Internet today, what is the ITU, and what is at stake in December? 

    Who governs the
    Internet today?

    At a basic level, there are two sides to the Internet
    governance coin: communications and standards. Governments oversee Internet communications within their borders
    (e.g. enacting laws relating to online conduct and services). Alternatively,
    non-government multistakeholder organizations –
    like the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) –
    administer Internet standards. (e.g.
    the Domain Name System and Internet Protocol). This means that while people
    across the globe generally connect to the same Internet, laws governing people’s
    use of the Internet may differ from state to state.

    What is the ITU? 

    The ITU was originally formed in 1865 to implement
    international standards for the telegraph. Today the ITU allocates the global
    radio spectrum, coordinates the assignment of satellite orbits, and promotes
    standards related to the global telecommunications infrastructure.

    For an annual fee of approximately $32,000 USD,
    non-governmental organizations can join the ITU as Sector Members and
    participate in preparatory work for the WCIT. However, membership is not open
    to individuals, and only member states vote on changes to the International
    Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs), the ITU treaty up for revision in

    What is at stake in

    At the WCIT, the ITU member states will consider revisions
    to the ITRs designed to bring various aspects of Internet communications (e.g.,
    spam, cybersecurity, data privacy, online child protection, etc.) and standards
    (relating to domain names and numbers) within the ITU’s
    jurisdiction. The adoption of one or more of these proposed revisions would
    mark a shift away from the existing multistakeholder model of governance,
    toward an international regulatory regime less open to participation by civil

    Should the ITU
    regulate the Internet?

    No. Beneath the United States’
    decision to relinquish control of Internet standards to a multistakeholder body
    was a recognition that the unique character of the Internet demanded an
    innovative model of governance. The existing multistakeholder system may be imperfect,
    but shifting regulatory authority to a nearly 150-year-old international body
    is surely a step in the wrong direction.

    The Internet will continue to raise novel concerns for
    state actors around the world. And perhaps the role of governments within the
    current regulatory scheme requires fine tuning. However, the community of
    nations should be one voice within a
    multistakeholder model of governance; not the
    voice. The ITU is not the proper agency to oversee the