Notes by Stephen Michael Kellat
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Column: Why WCIT-12 Matters

2012-12-07 by Stephen Michael Kellat, tagged as columns

Original date of posting: Thursday, December 6, 2012

Why WCIT-12 Matters
By Stephen Michael Kellat

There is more to an intergovernmental conference happening in Dubai than the Free/Libre Open Source Software community might suspect.

Currently in the Middle East a conference is being held called the World Conference on International Telecommunications 2012. With a drab event name is also found a drab name for the United Nations affiliate agency sponsoring the conference, the International Telecommunications Union. Although the conference seems to not have any impact on F/LOSS, one must dig a little deeper.

Most F/LOSS projects rely on the Internet as the backbone to allow for collaboration and distribution. For operating system distributions it is essential to have the Internet available so that new releases can be distributed to those who seek such. The Ubuntu project previously distributed physical media containing new releases for free through a central shipping but now relies on Internet distribution primarily while local community teams can get allocations of some media to distribute.

The current conference in Dubai has had many preliminary proposals raised as to changing the economics of the Internet. A bloc of countries from Africa and the Middle East led by the People's Republic of China and the Russian Federation have been pushing to change things so that content providers have to pay additional charges for the ability to have their content travel across the Internet. The California-based search giant Google already made a major protest to the United Nations as this would upset the general access currently available to smaller content providers and would shutter many. While developing countries would conceivably raise cash by bringing about such levies on Internet traffic that they deem to cause congestion due to it being rich and bandwidth-heavy, the digital divide overall would also widen.

No limits were specified in the draft proposals as to how big an organization need be to be slapped with such charges. Open source software such as Vector Linux, Slackware, Fedora, Mageia, Ubuntu, FreeBSD, OpenBSD and more would have issues created in distributing ISO images let alone allowing for “network installation” where installation happens dynamically traversing the public Internet. The fundraising measures being proposed by developing nation-states against providers like Google, Hulu, and Netflix would equally apply to such intense traffic. This does not even begin to encompass the package mirror and source code infrastructures out there.

The conference remains underway and no treaty has been agreed yet. As put by Dr. Michael Geist, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law, this event is not about control but more about who is paying for what. Digital life online previously seemed to be a low-cost solution to many problems in modern life. Virtual collaboration across borders has allowed Free/Libre Open Source Software to grow over time with relatively low communications and distribution overhead. That may all change depending upon what happens at the conference underway in Dubai.

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