As we reported two weeks ago, a closed-door meeting opened yesterday in Dubai that is debating control of the internet. For the next two weeks, members of the United Nations' International Telecommunications Union will debate a number of topics including whether they should increase their remit from telegrams and telephone calls to include IP-based networks (i.e. the internet).
Concern over this development has been mounting over the last month and at the time of writing more than 1.9 million people have registered their dissent with Google's #freeandopen campaign.
The U.S. government has raised serious concerns about the issue, and now the European Union has added its voice to the campaign to keep control of the internet in the hands of existing bodies like the W3C.
There are conflicting views on how serious the consequences of this meeting could be. Many commentators have pointed out that it is normal for radical proposals to be made to U.N. bodies, only for them to be heavily diluted before they are passed. Others have argued that concerns over censorship are unfounded, given that freedom of expression is enshrined in Article 19 of the U.N.'s declaration of human rights, which supersedes all other U.N. declarations:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
However, dozens of countries already flout this article (as well as many other articles in the declaration) and it seems likely that the I.T.U.'s absorption of the internet will at the very least deliver further ammunition to states seeking to repress freedom of information within their borders.
The I.T.U.'s own position is that most of the fears put forward by opponents of the move are unfounded. Some claim that the I.T.U. already has this control if it seeks to take it as they define themselves as having authority over
any transmission, emission or reception of signs, signals, writing, images and sounds or intelligence of any nature by wired, radio, optical or other electromagnetic systems
Despite the I.T.U.'s attempts to defuse the growing row, the E.U. has now joined the U.S. by passing a motion condemning the possible power-grab, which it describes as lacking transparency and inclusiveness and goes on to state the European Parliament's belief that
the I.T.R. (International Telecommunications Regulations) reform proposals would negatively impact the internet, its architecture, operations, content and security, business relations and governance, as well as the free flow of information online
Proponents of the I.T.U. move such as Richard Hill argue that opposition arguments are based on a mis-understanding of the I.T.U.'s intentions. They claim that the campaign mounted by Google has less to do with a free and open internet and more to do with Google protecting its bottom line.
However Secretary-General of the I.T.U. Dr. Hamadoun I. Touré, has already stated that their aim is to find a balance between protecting people's privacy and right to communicate, and protecting individuals, institutions and countries from criminal activity — one has to wonder how long it will be before the word 'terrorist' appears in the increasingly irate press releases. The fact that the I.T.U. is already considering changes raises several concerns:
- How will large not-for-profit content providers such as Wikipedia fare if, as feared, an 'internet tax' is applied to large-content providers?
- If the I.T.U. seeks to combat spam as has been suggested, how will it determine what constitutes spam, by what scale will it judge 'good' content? Will individual countries be able to classify political dissent as spam?
- What constitutes a 'large-content provider'? If your blog starts to perform well online, could you receive a tax bill from a country you've never heard of?
Whether or not these issues affect us in the future, or whether control of the internet remains with the Internet Society, the W3C and ICANN will be decided in the next two weeks. As Tim Bray wrote on his Google+ feed at the end of November:
A few months ago, I’d thought that the I.T.U. folks could be safely ignored, there was going to be no power-grab for the Internet steering wheel or, if there was one, it would have no meaningful support.
But recently, smart people here at Google are actually looking worried, and asking us to pass the word along. I still find it hard to believe this could get any momentum, but I’d sure hate to wake up one morning and find out I’d been wrong. Seems like now would be a good time to make some noise.
Are you concerned about ITU plans to take control of the internet? Do you think the UN would make a better job of directing the internet than the Internet Society, W3C and ICANN? Let us know your views 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.