Contemporary history of Europe

The ITU Facing the Emergence of the Internet, 1960s–Early 2000s

The development of data networks was based on the technical convergence of two worlds in the 1960s: telecommunications and computing. The ITU was thereby involved early on through the Consultative Committee for International Telephony and Telegraphy (CCITT, now known as ITU- T) in the debates concerning transport protocols that arose from the 1970s. At the CCITT, telecommunications’ representatives decided in favour of virtual circuits, which enjoyed a long lifespan. Nevertheless, this choice diverged from the one made by the Arpanet’s researchers, and later the Internet’s community.
Faced by the success of Internet and a new model of technical decisions and governance arising within the Internet community, which was openly divergent from the standardization previously at work, the ITU generated strong criticism at the end of the 1990s and at the beginning of the 2000s when it tried to enter the Internet field. The ITU then sought to restore its techno-diplomatic role through multi-stakeholderism, of which the World Summit on the Information Society (2003 and 2005) marked a crucial step.
By crossing organizational archives, CCITT and ITU reports, oral history, press materials and web archives, this chapter will show how the ITU dealt with the transition from a well-recognized and salient techno-diplomatic role - partly due to the telecommunications’ monopolies- to a more peripheral position during the deregulation and the growth of the Internet.

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