On December 3rd a closed-door meeting will take place in Dubai. In attendance will be members of the United Nation's International Telecommunications Union. On the agenda will be a proposal, tabled by Russia, for sweeping changes to how the internet operates.
The proposed measure is to add 'IP-based networks' to the existing International Telecommunications Regulations, which would in effect transfer all power of governance over the internet from the Internet Society, the W3C and ICANN, to national governments under the umbrella of the U.N.
The exact wording of the proposals is being withheld by the I.T.U. however worrying details are being leaked via the internet.
The first issue that you should be aware of is that if control for the development of web-standards is removed from the W3C and handed to national governments, the development of core internet technologies will no longer be based on technological appropriateness; for example, it is unlikely that HTML5 would have emerged as a web-standard if it was subject to ratification by nearly 200 separate governments, many of which have a long history of selling their votes in exchange for favors elsewhere.
The second issue that is likely to be of concern is that censorship that has previously been limited to two dozen countries could be imposed on the whole internet. Regimes such as Russia, Iran and China would not only be free to censor both incoming and outgoing internet traffic, they would, by law, be supported in that effort by the U.N. and all of its member states.
It is of little surprise that the repressive government in China blocks search results for "Tiananmen Square". The concern many commentators share is that if the U.N. power grab goes ahead, Chinese officials will have the power to broker deals that will require all U.N. member states to enforce the same censorship.
The U.S. government has expressed serious concern at the proposal. We can expect the U.S. government to defend its citizens' constitutional right to freedom of speech, however, like all countries at the U.N. assembly, the United States has a single vote. Raising enough support to block moves towards censorship may necessitate substantial compromise elsewhere.
Another aspect of the proposal leaked onto the web is the so-called "sender pays" system. The current I.T.R.s — which cover telegrams and telephone calls — allow nations to charge a set fee to anyone initiating a telephone call to their country; it is the person that makes the call, not the person who receives it that pays the fee. The "sender pays" system would, if introduced, mean that large content providers such as YouTube would be taxed on any data sent to a foreign country. Google would in effect be making 400 million international phone calls everyday.
Author and technology consultant Larry Downes is quoted by WebProNews.com as stating that in the 1990s, under the current I.T.R.s, the United States paid $15 billion more for placing international calls than for receiving them. His fear, shared by a growing number of analysts is that web use in the United States and other western nations will be heavily taxed to subsidize web access in developing nations.
But it's always when the orcs have breached the keep that the Rohirrim ride into view: fresh from its victories over SOPA and PIPA, Google has just launched a campaign to oppose the effective power-grab by the I.T.U. and they want you to get involved.
Google's #freeAndOpen campaign is seeking to ensure that control of the internet remains where it has been for the last 20 years: with the engineers, technologists, futurologists and visionaries who built it.
Google state that "A free and open world depends on a free and open web" and they're asking you to register your support for that principle.
In 10 days, the future of our industry; the future of web technologies such as HTML and CSS; the future of web-standards; the future of the content you are able to access online; even the price you pay for that access will all be debated behind closed doors. If we value our international community, now is the time to make our feelings known.
Do you believe the internet should be controlled by governments or non-profit organizations? Would you continue to work on a highly regulated internet? Let us know what you think in the comments.
Ben Moss has designed and coded work for award-winning startups, and global names including IBM, UBS, and the FBI. When he’s not in front of a screen he’s probably out trail-running.