UN Internet Regulations

Recently, privacy advocates have been watching the activities of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a UN agency based in Geneva, Switzerland. The ITU is responsible for regulating telecommunications and IT issues. What’s new is that the organization has been considering increasing the scope of the UN to internet governance. This article takes a closer look at the issue.

What is the ITU?

The ITU is the United Nations’ specialized agency for dealing with information and communication technologies. The ITUs overview states that “We allocate global radio spectrum and satellite orbits, develop the technical standards that ensure networks and technologies seamlessly interconnect, and strive to improve access to ICTs to underserved communities worldwide.”

ITU membership includes both public and private sector players, from the 193 UN member states to information and communication technologies regulators, leading academic institutions and over 700 private companies.

The ITU is responsible for three main areas of activity, or sectors:

  1. Radiocommunications – This sector coordinates the ever-growing range of radiocommunication services and takes care of the international management of the radio-frequency spectrum and satellite orbits.
  2. Standardization – ITU standards are essential for guiding various activities, including internet access, transport protocols, voice and video compression, home networking and other technologies. Each year, the ITU produces or revises more than 150 standards, which cover everything from core network functionality to next-generation services.
  3. Development – The telecommunication development sector enables ITU members to enter or expand their presence in emerging markets; demonstrate global ICT leadership; learn how to put policy into practice; or pursue a corporate social responsibility mandate.

Updating Regulations

During September 2012, the ITU discussed updating current international telecommunication regulations, which had been agreed upon 25 years ago. These regulations were not designed with the context of widespread Internet of smartphone usage, not to mention VoIP networks, net neutrality or international roaming charges.

Members are preparing for the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), which is scheduled to be held in Dubai December 3-14, 2012. This conference is set to review the current International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs), which were last negotiated in 1988. The ITRs serve as the “binding global treaty outlining the principles which govern the way international voice, data and video traffic is handled, and which lay the foundation for ongoing innovation and market growth.”

A number of UN member states have already submitted proposals for updating the ITRs, some of which have been rather concerning. US legislators speculate that the renegotiated ITRs could potentially allow countries such as China and Russia to more easily censor the internet.

Differing Voices

In this context, the US House of Representatives has backed a so-called “Internet freedom” resolution introduced by Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-CA) on September 1, 2012. According to Mack’s official statement:

“Today’s unanimous vote sends a clear and unmistakeable message: The American people want to keep the Internet free from government control and prevent Russia, China and other nations from succeeding in giving the UN unprecedented power over web content and infrastructure.”

In the same vein, Google supported the House resolution. A recent blog post from Vint Cerf, Google’s “chief internet evangelist,” read:

“Traditionally, international discussions of Internet policy have flourished in a ‘multistakeholder’ system that involves the input of lawmakers, academics, civil society and users. If certain member states are successful in Dubai, they could change the Internet governance process as we know it, increasing control over networks and substantially limiting the role of users and other vital, nongovernmental actors in important Internet policy debates.”

Others argue that the possibility of seizing control of the internet is overblown. More moderate observers have commented that it’s unlikely the ITU will make drastic changes to its regulations, especially without consulting member states.

A Question of Privacy

A point of interest is that many people want to see the UN take a more stringent position when it comes to promoting individuals’ online privacy rights. According to Jeremy Malcolm, an Australian scholar and lawyer specializing in Internet governance: “The lack of a global standard for online privacy is something that is currently broken… so a more globalized approach would not be a bad thing.”


This article takes a look at the issue of developing global online privacy standards and regulations. Currently, the ITU (International Telecommunications Union), an agency of the UN is responsible for information and communication technologies. The ITU operates in three sectors: 1) radiocommunications; 2) standardization; and 3) development. The article also discusses the possibility of updating current international telecommunication standards, at the upcoming World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), scheduled to be held in Dubai December 3-14, 2012.

CIPP Exam Preparation

In preparation for the Certified Information Privacy Professional/Information Technology (CIPP/IT) exam,  a privacy professional should be comfortable with topics related to this post, including:

  • Privacy and system design (I.I.)
  • Privacy responsibility framework (II.B.)
  • Addressing data protection gaps (III.A.a.)

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