Nº 3 2015 > The origins of ITU

The Origins of the ITU, and their Relevance Today

On 17 May 1865, representatives of twenty Continental European governments signed the International Telegraph Convention of Paris, which laid the foundations for the International Telegraph Union (which later became the International Telecommunication Union or ITU). At 150 years, the ITU is the oldest international organization in the United Nations system. It is particularly interesting to see how the nature of the global order of telegraphic communications established so many years ago is, at its centre, still quite relevant today.

On 17 May 1865, representatives of twenty continental European governments signed the International Telegraph Convention of ParisThe Origins of the ITU, and their Relevance Today
On 17 May 1865, representatives of twenty continental European governments signed the International Telegraph Convention of Paris

Why was ITU established?

There is no single explanation for why the ITU was established — political considerations were at the origins of multilateral telegraph regulation, but there were other reasons as well. The International Telegraph Convention was preceded by over 100 international telegraph agreements concluded between continental European governments governing the operation of their telegraph systems. Among the first bilateral agreements was a treaty concluded in 1848 between the Kingdoms of Prussia and Hanover, dealing with technical cooperation issues relating to the Prussian telegraph line bridging Hanoverian territory.

Within a few years, the continent was covered by a network of overlapping telegraph agreements. In 1850, the German Austrian Telegraph Union (GATU) was established in Dresden, led by Prussia. Two years later, in 1852, a Convention signed in Paris brought together Prussia and France and the initiator, Belgium. In 1855, the West European Telegraph Union (WETU) was established in Paris, under the leadership of the French Government. These treaties regulated various aspects of international telegraphy — from access to technical standards, from tariffs to censorship.

In practical terms, however, the Conventions contained multiple overlapping tariff regimes, so the system had become complicated and confusing. Governments sought to simplify and harmonize the regulatory system through the ITU, thereby improving the conditions for telegraph traffic in Europe. The free exchange of ideas also corresponded to beliefs at the time about the benefits of free trade and technological progress. In his speech at the Paris Conference of 1865, the French Foreign Minister Edouard Drouyn de Lhuys called the founding conference of the ITU in Paris a “veritable Congress of Peace” based on telegraphy as a “prodigious means of communications establishing a rapid means of dialogue between the human family”.

The ITU provided a unified framework for technical cooperation and coordination, which proved beneficial to its members, as evidenced by the subsequent rapid growth in telegraph traffic, the expanding geographical scope of communications and falling prices for telegrams (mainly through the introduction of a uniform tariff in the 1865 Convention, although telegrams still remained unaffordable for many people). The ITU asserted control over the international development and operation of the first global telecommunication technology, a technology with potentially transformative aspects on trade, the public sphere and diplomacy. The ITU effectively simplified the regulation of international telegraphy and provided a broad framework for technical cooperation and common standards (such as the Morse system, adopted by the ITU for the international telegraph service). The International Telegraph Convention acted as a knowledge-sharing community to provide a consistent basis for the exchange of telegrams between its Member States.

Another important point is the private sector involvement in ITU. Today, there are 567 ITU Sector Members. The 1865 Convention provisioned that States had to impose the rules set out in the Convention on private operating companies. Three years later, the Vienna Convention 1868 stipulated that private companies could accede to the Convention (see separate article in this edition on private sector involvement in ITU).

How is the original global order of communications still relevant today?

The 1865 International Telegraph Convention and the founding of the International Telegraph Union were influenced by the need for multilateral technical cooperation, standards, and the simplification of existing regulations. This Convention, however, still provides a relevant background to many of today’s current debates.

Standards-setting seems a very technical activity, but it was not always a neutral activity. Evidence shows that experts involved in techno-diplomatic negotiations at the time were aware of the power dimension to technological agreements — it is important that all participants involved in standards setting activity are on a par in their technical knowledge. The ITU provided a solution to this challenge, as a knowledge-sharing community.

The second point is about the routes taken by messages. Article 31 stated that Member States could lower their tariffs, while Article 37 established the principle of the least costly route for messages. Taken together, these Articles had a far-reaching influence on the routing of messages, as Member States could change their pricing structures to attract international telegrams, which came within the purview of the countries they were routed through. The routing of communications is still relevant today, with relevance to the routing and surveillance of messages over the Internet.

The prioritization of messages is also relevant today (as defined in Article 11 of the Convention). First came State telegrams by contracting governments, then so-called ’service telegrams’ by the telegraph administrations, and lastly, all other correspondences, including private messages. This issue of prioritizing messages may be regarded as a distant predecessor of today’s debates about packet prioritization and net neutrality.

Article 5 of the Convention stipulated secrecy of correspondence, which signatories were obliged to ensure (subject to certain qualifications), while Article 9 dealt with ciphered messages. The concept of secrecy is related to today’s debates about the erosion of privacy on the Internet — albeit with a huge difference in scale.

The original ITU simplified the regulation of international telegraphy, and provided a broad framework for technical cooperation, coordination and standards-setting. A number of aspects of this original global order of communications are still relevant to today’s public debates around Internet use. It remains to be seen in the future how ITU will accommodate these global debates.

This article is an adaptation of an ITU Talk given by Dr Kars Aznavour on ’The History of the ITU’, at the ITU Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, on 30 January 2015. Dr Aznavour specializes in historical and present-day perspectives on ICTs, politics and culture, and holds a PhD in International Studies from the Graduate Institute (IHEID) in Geneva. His ITU Talk can be accessed from the ITU website.


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