I was in the big plenary room in Athens yesterday when the ITU’s Yoshio Utsumi made his big claim of the day. According to Declan McCullagh of ZDNet who paraphrased Utsumi, the ITU chief “criticized the current rules for overseeing domain names and Internet addresses, stressing that poorer nations are dissatisfied and are hoping that this week's meeting will erode U.S. influence.” If you read between the lines it’s like the old line from the movie Network – they’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore.
Well the truth is out. I sat through a grueling, numbing 8 hours of sessions today with “them”, listening to representatives of various countries from Africa to Latin America to the South Pacific talk all about the different challenges they face on access, openness and the like. And Utsumi has it right. They are mad as hell. But from what I heard their problems don’t stem from any excess of US influence and they’re certainly not looking to the ITU for solutions.
From my seat in the various committee rooms I heard that Emerging Markets delegates are dissatisfied. They are dissatisfied with their own governments who are not doing enough to create operating environments that promote IT investment. They are disappointed by the cozy relationships between legacy telcos and regulators, a situation that stifles competition from new ISPs. They are underwhelmed by the lack of locally-relevant web content, which is key to driving public demand and investor interest. And they are truly frustrated by the slow pace of progress on IDNs, especially in Arabic-speaking countries.
However, I also heard a clear voice of independence. In four different presentations in four different voices I heard speakers say in essence: “its local demand and local pressure, NOT some magic bullet from the donor community, that is likely to fix what ails us and get us to the next level of Internet availability.” What I heard was not the voice of aggrieved outsiders, but rather a matter-of-fact, non-political call from creative, ambitious people tired of waiting for some trickle down of technology and understandably suspicious of the idea that we in the OECD will some day come bearing gifts. Fair enough.
As any reader will know, I am certainly no fan of ICANN or the ICANN process. I think they’re dragging on IDNs and lagging on reforming ICANN processes. Still, the idea that somehow a move to greater control of the Internet by an even more politicized ITU will help the developing world meet its needs seems ridiculous to me.
More than the bureaucrats realize – whether they sit in Washington or Geneva – I think Emerging Markets increasingly do “get it”. We can help, but they know its time for them to push to address the local issues they face. No one who’s sat through the plenary here should have any illusion that some increased UN role will quickly improve the real facts on the ground, in country, where it matters.
In the end, is there a role for the UN? I’m honestly not sure. Perhaps a little lecture to the diplomats at headquarters – something before they return home about supporting the legitimate digital aspirations of their own people – would be time well spent.
However, I certainly didn’t hear anybody calling for rescue by Geneva today. Sorry Mr. U.