Would you trust Vladimir Putin with the keys to the web?

There are not many reasons for going to Dubai in December. In fact, there are not many reasons for going to Dubai full stop, but here’s one possible exception. Next month the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is holding the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) in that benighted city. The purpose of the conference is to review the current international telecommunications regulations (ITRs), which “serve as the binding global treaty designed to facilitate international interconnection and interoperability of information and communication services”.

Riveting stuff, eh? Before deciding whether to book a flight, you click on the link on the ITU site labelled “participation”. There is a link labelled “announced list of participants”. So you click on that, and up comes a page that says “administrative document 4” with a 1980s-style image of a key and the words “document restricted to TIES users” – or in other words, “member states, sector members, associates and academia”. And suddenly you’re back in a 1950s world of UN bureaucrats on tax-free salaries deciding global issues in secret conclaves.

Given that WCIT-12 is being seen by some as a conspiracy in which Russia, China, Iran and other repressive regimes use the ITU as a Trojan horse to begin the process of bringing the internet under adult supervision , you can see why people are becoming agitated about it. Secretive horse-trading between governments is not what created the internet. Cue Google’s efforts to launch a global campaign involving internet users. “A free and open world depends on a free and open internet” declares the front page of the campaign website. Which is true, and the fact that Google’s prosperity likewise depends on that selfsame net doesn’t undermine its veracity. “But not all governments support the free and open internet,” it continues. And “some of these governments are trying to use a closed-door meeting in December to regulate the internet. Add your voice in support of the free and open internet.”

Right on! As we ageing hippies say. The basic complaint is that while an outfit like the ITU, whose voting members are all nation states, might be OK for deciding the allocation of international dialling codes, it’s completely inappropriate to allow it to regulate the internet. The argument is that entrusting the governance of the network to an organisation in which Robert Mugabe’s vote counts for as much as the UK’s would be like giving a delicate clock to a monkey.

And so indeed it would, and to that extent the anxiety of campaigners is understandable. They fear that an internet governed by the ITU would be one in which states could, for example, block any content of which they disapproved and levy toll charges on data that crossed their frontiers. But the prospect of a vote orchestrated by Putin, Mugabe et al giving the ITU that kind of comprehensive grip on the internet seems remote, and the apocalyptic fears of Google and co are therefore probably a bit overblown.

Besides, the existing ITU constitution actually gives member nations many of those powers anyway. Article 34, for example, gives states the right “to cut off, in accordance with their national law, any other private telecommunications which may appear dangerous to the security of the state or contrary to its laws, to public order or to decency”. What more could Vladimir Putin want?

That’s not to say that there aren’t genuine reasons for concern about the Dubai discussions. As Professor Dwayne Winseck points out in a penetrating analysis of the treaty amendments being proposed by Russia et al, the real devil in WCIT-12 lies in the detail.

“Several proposals now on the table,” he writes, “would cast a devastating blow to the internet by blessing the efforts of individual countries to build their own closed and controlled national web 3.0 internet spaces today.” He also sees real dangers in the proposed treaty changes in the areas of identity, privacy and political activity. And he’s right.

But here’s the really interesting bit. The only reason Professor Winseck – or you and I – know about Putin’s proposed amendments is because they were leaked and published on the WCITleaks site by Jerry Brito and Eli Dourado at George Mason University in Virginia. The fact that far-reaching changes to “our” internet are being negotiated and decided in total secrecy is conclusive proof, if proof were needed, that the ITU isn’t a fit organisation to govern it.

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