International telecommunication regulations (WATTC-88)

9 Dec 1988

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Regulations and Policies

Telecommunications have been subject of international regulation for a long time. In 1885, the International Telegraph Union (which later on became the International Telecommunication Union) initiated work on elaborating international legislation for telephony; initial provisions on the unit of charge and the length of a call were initially set in the Telegraph Regulations. In 1932, the first Telephone Regulations were adopted, and they were aimed to apply only to the international telephone services in the ‘European system’ – all countries in Europe and countries outside Europe which declare that they belong to this system.

In 1988, the Telegraph Regulations and the Telephone Regulations were merged into a single treaty – the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs). Signed by 122 countries, the Regulations were adopted with the aim to ‘facilitate global interconnection and interoperability of telecommunication facilities and to promote the the harmonious development and efficient operation of technical facilities, as well as the efficiency, usefulness and availability to the public of international telecommunication services’. The Regulations introduced a definition for telecommunications, described as ‘any transmission, emission or reception of signs, signals, writing, images and sounds or intelligence of any nature by wire, radio, optical or other electromagnetic systems’. The ITRs then outline a series of principles regarding the operation and maintenance of the ‘international telecommunication network’, and the provision of international telecommunication services, as well as the related responsibilities of member states and network operators (mostly state-owned at that time). A common set of principles for establishing and collecting charges for international telecommunication services, as well as for accounting rates and monetary units for such charges are also included in the Regulations. Moreover, the right of ITU member states to suspend international telecommunication services (initially set in the ITU Convention) is reiterated here, and an obligation is introduced for member state that exercise such rights to notify the ITU Secretary General.

The 1988 Regulations provided the general ‘regulatory’ framework for the provision and operation of international telecommunication networks and services. Adopted at a time when the Internet was very much in its early stages of development, the ITRs did not deal with Internet related issues. But they gained the attention of the Internet governance community in 2012, in the context of the ITU-led process aimed at revising the Regulations. Following a number of revision proposals made by both member states and other actors, the intergovernmental negotiation process on the review of the ITR was held in the context of the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). Some of the discussed proposals were aimed at extending the applicability of the Regulations to also cover communications transmitted via the Internet. Such proposals were not well received by several ITU member states, and no consensus on such an extension could be reached by the end of the Conference. Nevertheless, a revised version of the Regulations was adopted at that time, and it was signed by 89 out of the 144 delegations with voting rights. The countries that refused to sign the revised ITRs argued that, although the document itself did not make specific references to the Internet, some of the adopted revisions (such as those related to security and spam), could be interpreted as covering Internet related issues as well.

Currently, both the 1988 and the 2012 versions of the ITRs are in force. The 1988 Regulations remain applicable to countries that have refused to become party to the 2012 revised treaty. The 2012 revised Regulations became applicable to signatory states in January 2015. Relations between a non-party to the 2012 treaty and a party to the 2012 treaty are governed by the 1988 treaty.

Implementation of the ITRs lies solely in the responsibility of signatory member states, and it is done  through national legislations or regulations.