One of the current alarums and excursions online is the suggested threat of the International Telecommunications Union to the internet. The ITU, a United Nations body, is currently revising its now-ancient (1988) International Telecommunications Regulations in a process that will culminate in a meeting in Dubai in December.

The UN, its bureaucracy and acceptance of dictatorial régimes the world over, is anathema to cyber libertarianism. The prospect of the dead hand of the UN trying to impose itself on the internet has produced considerable heat online, particularly from US commentators, but not much in the way of actual light or evidence of any cyber land-grab.

That changed somewhat last week when proposals for amendments to the ITRs from the European Telecommunications Network Operators association began attracting attention — in particular, a proposal that network neutrality be abandoned and that

“… all parties (including operating agencies authorised by Member States) involved in the provision of international internet connections negotiate and agree to bilateral commercial arrangements, or an alternative type of arrangement between administrations, enabling direct international Internet connections that take into account the possible need for compensation between them for the value of elements such as traffic flow, number of routes, geographical coverage and cost of international transmission, and the possible application of network externalities …”

That is, European telcos wanted to be able to charge differentially based on high traffic. Like telcos around the world, European companies have had to sit back and watch the internet eat their lunch in recent years, with massive growth in data traffic while mobile phones reached saturation point and fix-line services declined. On top of that, much of Europe entered a depression in 2008 and hasn’t emerged since.

The ETNO draft set the conspiracy hares running again. One writer for the Techdirt website insisted “no one will say that out loud, of course, but taxing the internet as it crosses borders opens up the door to tracking internet usage. Because you can’t tax something that you can’t track.” The spectre of world government taxing the internet and tracking its users suddenly loomed large again. Headlines like “the US versus the world” began reappearing.

A far more objective and nuanced assessment of the ETNO was available from the Internet Governance Project, which concluded the proposals, while concerning from a network neutrality point of view, simply reflected the continuation of telcos’ efforts to combat the disruption to their business models caused by the internet, and in fact were unnecessary anyway. The key thing is that it’s nothing to do with taxation of any kind — the proposals are a try-on for telcos to charge ISPs and the world’s biggest websites more for infrastructure access.

Complicating the calm discussion of the ITU process, however, is the secretive nature of the organisation’s activities. For example, it’s impossible to establish what the budget for the ITU is or its financial state. Remarkably for a major international institution, the most recent publicly available budget information for the ITU is from 2008-09 and consists of a five-paragraph statement. In comparison, other UN bodies are exemplars of budget transparency. The UNHCR, for example, not merely has a detailed breakdown of its current and forthcoming budgets, but breakdowns for each donor country as well. For an organisation (wrongly) accused of planning to impose a UN internet tax, it’s a poor advertisement.

As the IGP points out, perhaps the more important issue is whether the ITU has any relevance when it comes to telecommunications. Its radiocommunications functions remain crucial to international agreement to regulate spectrum. But why does anyone need the UN to regulate commercial arrangements between telecommunications providers? That function is a legacy from the era when telcos were uniformly government monopolies operating tightly controlled communications networks, from an analog era when governments acted as literal gatekeepers in determining who communicated across their borders. Now, access is a commercial arrangement that can be regulated, if need be, under standard international trade agreements.

Perhaps the real secret isn’t the UN’s sinister plan to take over or tax the internet, but that it’s simply irrelevant to it.