It’s not surprising that some confusion surrounds a telecommunications meeting that started this week in Dubai. The gathering, under the auspices of the United Nations, is called the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). It’s seen widely in the internet community as a power grab by the UN’s International Telecommunication Union, an agency that has had significant impact in the telecom arena for decades via standards-setting and various treaties among UN member states.
The Dubai meeting is another treaty negotiation, aimed at bringing cross-border telecom rule up to date for the first time since 1988. The ITU’s secretary general, Hamadoun Toure, has insisted that the goal is not to regulate speech; countless critics believe otherwise, and the best evidence, given typical ITU secrecy during the process, suggests the critics are right.
The very idea that the ITU could obtain and exert major regulatory powers over the internet is a happy one only to dictators and others who believe the internet needs to be controlled. We’ve seen again and again what nation states like Syria, China, Saudi Arabia and others do when they are unhappy with online content or conversations. Even a hint that such censorship could spread should be, and is, anathema to people who believe in fundamental free speech rights. Russia, in particular, has proposed regulations (pdf) that the United States ambassador to the meeting called “the most shocking and most disappointing” of any he’d seen.
Keep in mind the mindset of the ITU and many member states: they start with the notion that the internet is really just an extension of 20th-century telecommunications technology and systems. So it’s no surprise that many want to apply telephone-era models to the internet, including a “sending party pays” system (favored by some African nations where governments and the telecom industry are often essentially the same entities). Under the best of circumstances, the ITU is a notably inappropriate vehicle for any kind of internet governance. And these are not the best of circumstances.
The European Union and Australia have joined the US in objecting to what’s happening in Dubai, but the EU parliament’s resolution makes a point that American officials have avoided: the process has been deliberately opaque “given that the outcomes of this meeting could substantially affect the public interest”. Only because public interest organizations and activists have persuaded participants to leak some of the documents do we have more than the faintest clue of what these governments have been cooking up behind our backs.
And while US objections to this process are welcome, it’s worth noting a long history of secret treaty negotiations involving – or led by – the United States government, including some that could have led (and may still lead) to severe restrictions on internet speech and technologies. Even as the WCIT meeting proceeds, the Obama administration – carrying water, as always, for Hollywood and other interests – is pushing ahead with even more non-transparent negotiations over the “Trans-Pacific Partnerships”, a deal that by credible accounts could be devastating to the internet’s open nature. Who’s to say that Dubai won’t produce the kinds of internet restrictions that make Hollywood, not just Beijing, pleased to support a new treaty?
For that, and many other reasons, I’m on the side of those who are loudly protesting what’s going on in Dubai. I simply do not trust this kind of process to produce anything good and I’m not reassured by the “don’t worry about it” commentary that’s been popping up in the past few days.
The internet is a miracle of self-governance – and should stay that way. It was created and grew to global reach as an ecosystem of cooperating networks where the architecture of internet communications fit hand-in-glove with collaboration, rather than top-down rule. It is hardly perfect: we need government assistance to prevent the telecommunications industry and other controllers of choke-points from wrecking its already threatened end-to-end design principles (pdf). What we emphatically do not need is government interference of the kinds being proposed.
So, I’m with Vint Cerf, a Google vice-president and one of the internet’s genuine pioneers, along with a host of others who are speaking out to protect and extend the value, and values, of an open internet. You can join that chorus, too.
Maybe, Dubai will turn out to be a harmless, if money-wasting exercise that changes nothing. But given the fear and loathing the open internet has inspired among global interests that see it as a threat more than an opportunity, we should make no such assumptions.