Say Goodbye to the Internet as you have known it

Over the next year, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) will seek changes in the basic arrangements governing the Internet. Though the story is too large for one blog posting, it boils down to this. Russia, China, Brazil, India, Syria and other states are militating against the free exchange of information, and the ITU, which is a treaty organization of the United Nations, is their chosen instrument for achieving much greater control of the Internet.

Allied with them are a number of third world countries who believe they will recover money from international data traffic, money which they lost when the Internet overturned the charging arrangements that underlie telephone voice traffic.

To understand what they are up to, it helps to understand how the Internet works. Essentially, the Internet is the stupid network, and the telephone system is the intelligent network. The telephone network has to be intelligent because it is charging you money for the movement of your traffic. The Internet does not have to be intelligent in that way because its designers threw out all the machinery that tracked packets for the purpose of charging you for them.

The effect of this has been revolutionary. You pay your local Internet service provider a monthly fee for bandwidth usage. You roam about the Internet, summoning packets from all over the world, without regard to distance or time of day. Google sends you information, you upload pictures, or play games, do what you want. The ISP is tracking overall usage, perhaps, but it is not concerned with the end-points you are reaching. Nor does the person offering you information charge you, unless there is a specific agreement that it will cost you. More important, the ISP closest to Harvard University cannot send you a bill for contacting Harvard University.

People in Cameroon or Ohio can take a course from Harvard, and pay no more for the course than a) what Harvard charges, if anything, and b) their monthly usage bill for bandwidth.

How much does this all cost? Just what you pay now. All the transmission capacity, routers, servers, IP addresses, storage, websites is fully paid for now. Your local ISP collects your payments, sends a payment up the food chain to a larger ISP, which aggregates more traffic, up to the apex of the exchange system, where the really large carriers “peer” – exchange traffic for free (what’s a terabit among friends?). These are all unregulated private arrangements. The Internet has worked this way since it started.

It follows that, if someone wants to charge more for the Internet, as the proponents of change at the ITU do, they want to collect twice: once from the user, and once again from the sender, or the sender’s ISP.

The countries that compose the bulk of the ITU’s membership lost money because of the Internet. Their state-owned monopolies used to collect revenue from people sending traffic to their countries, which was usually from a rich country to a poor country. Under the Internet regime they collect money locally, and have to pay to larger players up the food chain when they pass on traffic from their countries to the large international carriers. In the old days they collected money from North Americans calling to the third world. Now they have to pay for the cost of transmission pipes to North America, Korea or Japan, and pay a free for connecting to larger ISPs.

In exchange their people gain access to everything that lies on servers in the wealthier countries.  Since their people benefit, but their telephone monopolies do not, the poorer countries are mostly concerned with recovering their “lost” telephone settlement money. Hence a majority of states is ready to wreck the Internet, not knowing what they are doing. States with an agenda hostile to the free flow of information, such as Russia, China, Iran and Syria can pile on to this majority to effect even worse changes to the international communications system. This will be the subject of a later posting.

Background on Internet design

The designers of the Internet assumed away the costs of transmitting data. It was designed not to be concerned with who paid for it. When the founders of the Internet looked at the telephone system, they found that most of its cost lay in the machinery that counted call minutes, that kept track of who called whom, and for how long, over what distance, and what time of day. These are called “charging arrangements”. The Internet has no machinery to do this. The Internet runs on a packet routing technology. Packets go towards their destinations, guided by routers, which tell a packet where a computer (called a server) with the right IP address is. Once the packet has passed through the router, the router has no memory of the passage of the packet through it.

Think of a packet as yourself driving down the road, looking for the turnoff to your friend’s town. You know he lives in Belleville, Ontario. First you look for directions to Ontario, then to Belleville, then to his street address. As you pass the signs for province, town, and street, you read them, but they do not remember you. You direct yourself towards your destination; the highway signs are merely indicators; they do not do the driving for you.

At the Core of the Old System

The core of the old system (telephones and telegraphs) is composed of states. The ITU is a treaty organization among states. Private persons, civil society groups, and business do not have a right to speak at these conferences. The ITU works on one state-one vote.

The core of the Internet is composed of privately owned computers. Private persons, corporations, and governments work in what are called multi-stakeholder organizations to resolve policy issues.

The consequence is that people and businesses have no right to speak at the ITU.