UN agency threatens internet’s future
An upcoming International Telecommunication Union meeting in Dubai could forever change the internet as we know it, writes Brian Pellot.
ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré will convene WCIT in December (Photo by InternetSociety under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike licence).
Our draft second principle at Free Speech Debate says, “We defend the internet and all other forms of communication against illegitimate encroachments by both public and private powers.” Yet current proposals to regulate the internet at a global level could seriously undermine and forever alter the internet as we know it today.
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a UN agency based in Geneva, is midway through a year-long review to determine whether the internet should join television, telephone and radio under its regulatory control. The ITU last convened to update the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) in 1988 when the internet was still in its infancy. When 193 member states go back to the drawing board in Dubai for the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) this December, they will be discussing what has rapidly become the world’s greatest communications network.
According to a recent article in Vanity Fair, the issues up for discussion in Dubai will likely touch on taxation, privacy and management. The internet has historically been maintained by civil society groups, voluntary standards bodies and nonprofit organisations working together to ensure its security and stability. Proposed ITR changes could shift this decentralised bottom-up approach to top-down control by government actors with their own national agendas.
States including Russia and China, both notable for their restrictive internet policies according to Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House, have lobbied the UN and ITU to extend regulatory control to the internet. Public policy organisations including the Centre for Democracy and Technology (CDT), the Electronic Frontier Foundation and AccessNow.org are united in their opposition to such a move. CDT warns that ITU regulatory control over the internet “could threaten the mediumʼs success as a platform for innovation, economic growth, human development, and democratic participation”.
Because preparations for WCIT have been opaque and the proceedings far from transparent, it is unclear whether WCIT will address operability issues alone or instead tackle the controversial realm of internet governance. Only ITU member states can access preparatory documents outlining proposed ITR changes, leaving civil society groups and society at large in the dark. WCITLeaks has shed some much needed light on these proceedings. Set up by two US policy analysts, the site provides an anonymous channel through which reports can be made public. Amidst a flurry of leaks, the ITU Governing Council recently agreed to release one summary document of proposed ITR amendments. Although seemingly a positive step, this slight concession is unlikely to spur significant transparency in the run up to December.
The internet is a primary communication tool and space for billions of people. Top-down ITU regulation would not only violate our second principle, it would undermine our entire project. The 40 governments that currently censor the internet should not be permitted to extend free speech stifling policies beyond their territorial boundaries under the guise of UN-sanctioned authority.
Local laws in Dubai and the United Arab Emirates prohibit internet users from accessing sites related to dating, pornography, nudity, homosexuality, gambling and blasphemy to name just a few banned content categories. When representatives from ITU member states descend on the authoritarian emirate in December to decide the internet’s future, they should view each block page they hit while surfing the web as a warning of what implications new ITRs concerning the internet could have on global free speech.