Some of the push for new ITU guidelines comes from authoritarian governments that are members of the WCIT and wish to clamp down on the Internet, Cerf said. "If you are an authoritarian government, then the Internet is a threat. The Internet is the most democratizing engine ever invented," Cerf said. "Never in the history of the ITR has content been an issue. Can you imagine having international regulations about what you are allowed to say on the telephone?"
The WCIT work could also be seen as an attempt by the ITU to extend its reach to the Internet, especially as ITU's own influence appears to be waning, Cerf suggested. He noted that ITU was originally set up in the 19th century to establish guidelines for the telegraph, though it later was modified to handle telephony and then telecommunications systems.
The ITU has developed many low-level data and voice communications protocols, such as ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network), x.25 and ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode), though these standards are being used less frequently these days as they are replaced by the Internet. "In the last decade, communication applications that used to be done on specialized networks have migrated over to the Internet," Cerf said, citing examples such as telephony and video streaming. "The specialized networks are becoming less and less important and therefore many of the standards that ITU is responsible for are becoming less important."
The Internet Protocol (IP) "runs over everything, including you if you're not paying attention," Cerf joked.
During a question-and-answer period, one attendee wondered if universal Internet problems such as viruses and spam would best be treated at the international level, given how easily the creators of these issues can evade the reach of any one country.
Cerf agreed that an international response would be best, but said he was "not sure international regulation is the right tactic." He urged that nations could work together in a more informal fashion, in much the way that the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) has no formal membership but still solves pressing technology challenges.
"Some informality may turn out to be the best tactic," he said.