International telecommunication regulations (WCIT-12)

14 Dec 2012

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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), whose aim was 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’.

Unchanged for more than two decades, the ITRs were revised in 2012, in the framework of the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). Heated discussions were held during this conference on whether the Regulations should continue to apply only to traditional telecommunications, or be extended to also cover the Internet; several proposals were made that could have had a significant impact on how the Internet functions, on its underlying principles, as well as on Internet security and Internet content related issues. However, the final text on the revised Regulations did not contain specific provisions dealing with the Internet, as member states could not reach consensus in this regard.

While maintaining the the initial aim of facilitating interconnection and interoperability of telecommunications, the 2012 ITRs deal with such as: international telecommunication network and services and the responsibilities of member states in their development, functioning and evolution; the priority of safety of life telecommunications; the obligation of member states to endeavour to ensure the security and robustness of international telecommunication networks, as well as to take necessary measures to prevent the propagation of unsolicited bulk electronic communications; provisions of charging and accounting for international telecommunication services; member states obligations in the case of suspension of international telecommunication services; the obligation of member states to promote access for persons with disabilities to international telecommunication services.

Although the text of the revised ITRs does not contain specific provisions regarding the Internet, some of the final provisions were seen by certain member states as potentially covering Internet issues. For example, the new provision according to which the Regulations would be applicable to ‘ those operating agencies, authorized or recognized by a Member State, to establish, operate and engage in international telecommunications services to the public’ was seen as broadening the scope of the ITRs to include Internet service providers. Controversy also surrounded the introduction of provisions concerning network security and unsolicited electronic communications; as there are associated with the broader concept of cybersecurity (including in relation to spam in the context of emails), it was argued that it is difficult to interpret these provisions as being applicable only to traditional telecommunications (and not the Internet). In addition to the different interpretation of such provisions, the telecommunication definition itself (unchanged as compared to the 1988 ITRs)  is seen by some as also covering communications made via the Internet: ‘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’.

Such and other disputes lead to the final ITRs being signed by only 89 out of the 144 delegations with voting rights at WCIT; some of the countries not signing the Regulations were the United States, members of the European Union, Norway, Switzerland, Australia, and Canada. ITU member states that have not signed the revised ITRs continue to be bound by the 1988 version of the Regulations.

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