What Governments Decided on Digital Object Architecture for IoT

Over the past two weeks, governments convened in Tunisia at the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly (WTSA) to discuss the ITU’s mandate and work plan for the next four years.  High on the agenda were proposals for new ITU work relating to the technical, economic, policy, and regulatory aspects of the Internet of Things (IoT).  After lengthy negotiations, and over many countries’ objections (including that of the United States), the Assembly adopted a broad mandate for governments on a range of IoT issues, including on standards, infrastructure, privacy, security, and big data aspects of IoT and smart cities and communities. 

However, even this cloud has a silver lining.  Despite passionate attempts by some governments, the Assembly ultimately did not adopt a series of problematic proposals relating to Digital Object Architecture (DOA).  Based on a preliminary assessment of WTSA outcomes, for the time being, the work of the ITU’s Standardization Sector (ITU-T) on IoT will remain technology-neutral.  Of course, these outcomes must be considered against other developments, and additional perspectives likely will be developed. 

At WTSA, three country blocs—the Russian Communications Commonwealth (RCC), the Arab States Administrations (Arab States), and the African Telecommunication Union (ATU)—pushed a set of nearly identical proposals to recognize DOA in the ITU-T’s work.  DOA is a proprietary technology which assigns a unique identifier (called a “Handle”) to each IoT device.  A private organization, called the DONA Foundation (DONA), is responsible for managing the Global Handle System, and the ITU has signed a binding Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with DONA to hold the intellectual property rights and licenses and to provide support on public policy.  In 2013, the IUT-T also published Recommendation x.1255, describing a general framework for discovery of identity management information.  Recommendation x.1255 is based on DOA, although it does not specify Handles or the Handle System protocols. 

A number of proposals were made to WTSA to use DOA for the Internet of Things, to combat counterfeit devices, and for a range of Internet applications, including e-health.  Attempts were made to insert DOA into six WTSA resolutions addressing cybersecurity, Internet protocol, data privacy, mobile theft, and other IoT-related issues.  At their core, each of these proposals endorsed the proprietary platform for addressing governments’ and users’ needs.  Many of them also instructed ITU-T study groups to liaise with DONA, undertake pilot projects, study DOA applications, and develop Recommendations.

After lengthy negotiations, and pursuant to a hard fought compromise, all direct references to DOA, DONA, and the Handle System were removed from WTSA resolutions.  Some countries, including the United States, challenged any reference to a specific, proprietary technology like DOA as a break from the ITU’s long-standing tradition of maintaining a technology-neutral stance.  Countries also raised trademark and licensing issues related to the technology and emphasized ongoing standards work in multistakeholder fora. 

Nonetheless, WTSA outcomes will have a considerable impact on IoT.  Although DOA proposals mostly were not adopted, there already may be a sufficient basis for DOA to be integrated into the work plan of the ITU-T, based on the MoU and ongoing work in ITU-T study groups.  

In addition, it is clear that the ATU, Arab States, and RCC blocs are seeking to position the ITU at the center of next-generation networks and services, including for the Internet of Things, over-the-top services, mobile financial services, and IPv6.  These governments will continue to push the ITU to focus on DOA as the global architecture for IoT, using the ITU’s MoU as precedent for technical work on a private organization’s products and services.  While the United States and others may have pushed these proposals back at WTSA, they likely will be raised again to the Telecommunication Standardization Group, ITU Council, and the upcoming World Telecommunication Development Conference. 

Finally, WTSA outcomes on IoT and a range of other issues reflect a clear preference for government planning and top-down standards over market forces for aspects of the Internet.  Some WTSA outcomes invite governments to adopt operative parts of voluntary Resolutions into their national laws, thereby making them mandatory in those countries.  WTSA Resolutions also laid the groundwork for discussing issues relating to the Internet, privacy, and security at the treaty level in upcoming conferences.  The key takeaway for companies after WTSA is that all signs point to a challenging international regulatory environment for IoT going forward. 


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