It’s the end of the world (wide web) as we know it!
Imagine countries like China, Russia, Syria and Iran re-defining the way the Internet works in YOUR country, and elsewhere around the world. Picture the same censorship and privacy violations which currently target their populations – becoming new international norms, affecting us all.
Now stop imagining. While you are reading this blog, government officials are meeting in Dubai for the World Conference of International Telecommunications, also known as WCIT-12. The official goal of this conference is to review the current International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) which were adopted in Melbourne Australia back in 1988, and to expand the organisation’s mandate. In reality, this is an attempt by certain governments to use the platform of the United Nations International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) to impose aggressive government control over the global infrastructure of the internet.
In preparation for the conference, China has already openly called for “standardising the behaviour of countries concerning information and cyberspace” in a way that allows governments a powerful grip on the digital arena. Certain Arab countries want to be able to inspect private communications. Iran proposed new rules to measure Internet traffic along national borders and bill the originator of the traffic, as with international phone calls. Several other authoritarian regimes reportedly would ban anonymity from the Web, which would make it easier to find and arrest dissidents. This would be done by handing over to intergovernmental control, many of the functions of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the Internet Society and other stakeholder groups that establish the engineering and technical standards that allow the Internet to work.
The fact that the countries mentioned above are pushing their position publically is not obvious, given that the WCIT-12 consultations (both before and during the conference) are held behind closed doors, with no public accountability or transparency. Interestingly enough, a leaking platform has been created, designated solely to finding out more about the WCIT-12 discussions. The WCIT Leaks website has been gathering confidential documents used by governments in preparation for this conference, and providing some insight (described here) into what’s really at stake.
You would think that the UN, being committed to the protection of human rights, would never allow this to happen. Yet, each of the 193 Member States gets one vote, regardless of its respect for human rights (or lack of it). A simple majority is enough to redefine the way the internet works, and no, unlike the UN Security Council, no country can wield a veto in ITU proceedings.
As of last week, some 90 countries were estimated to support intergovernmental Net regulation—a mere seven short of a majority. This support is not necessarily malicious, stemming from a variety of reasons, e.g. an attempt to downsize the role the US government and of some global brands in the current direction of Internet policy, supporting the work of the ITU in the developing world, etc. . Nonetheless, in the past 10 years, the number of countries which censor Internet content has multiplied by 10 (from 4 to 40), casting serious doubt on the motivations of quite a few proponents of the new Internet regime.
Speak now or forever hold your peace
If you find these ideas horrendous, you are not alone. Individuals, organisations and even certain governments across the Western world have been criticising and objecting to the proposed new mandate of the ITU. Some of the more vocal ones, describing the “greatest risk the internet has ever faced”, include Web founder, Vincent Cerf and American media guru, Gordon Crovitz. Google, while taking part of the US delegation to the WCIT-12, has been on the attack with public declarations that the ITU is “used as a forum to increase censorship and regulate the Internet”. The ITU responded to Google directly on its blog, yet, Google went a step further by promoting an online petition against the WCIT-12. As many other European stakeholders, the European ISP association (EuroISPA), followed the same line with a public declaration against expanding the ITU mandate.
Finally, the proposed revision of ITRs has been widely opposed by certain democratic governments, including the USA (calling the Chinese proposal “both unnecessary and beyond the appropriate scope” of UN regulation); the European parliament (in a resolution urging states to reject changes in the existing ITRs), and even Vice-President of the European Commission Neelie Kroes who has been tweeting against regulating the internet (“if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” as she eloquently puts it).
But as we all know, the Internet is not (only) about hearing the same old “official voices”. The spirit of the digital revolution is that of democratic grass-roots movement which gives a stage to the masses (at least for the time being…). It is thus not only public-opinion figures, governments, and corporations who are shouting all over the Web. It is also common internet users, like you and I, who live in countries where we currently enjoy online freedom, and fear losing it. The most interesting initiative of that kind is called “What is the ITU?”, brought together by an association of non-profit organisations who cherish online freedom (see video above).
While you were sleeping
How did we reach this stage? Well, we used to think that the creation and development of the Internet was a win-win situation which benefited humanity as a whole. But that’s not quite the case. The digital revolution became an imminent threat to totalitarian regimes around the world, whose grip on their populations has been challenged by the Internet in general and the rise of social media in particular.
It is no wonder that Arab governments completely cut off their populations from the Internet in the midst of the Arab Spring uprisings (the last one to do so was Syria last week). The Russian government reacted fiercely when the Pussy Riot video started going viral. But why look so far for examples? Even in the United States, “leader of the free world” declared a massive attack against Julian Assange when WikiLeaks started spreading documents classified as US Top Secret. If it weren’t for the power of the Net, the ‘anciens regimes’ of Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia would probably still be in place, and the Syrian one would not be trembling under the current threat.
We, in the West rejoiced at the sight of technology advancing democratisation. We thought it was a linear process that would help liberate oppressed peoples. It was 1:0 to the Net against the State. Now some states are back, trying to get even.
It’s the economy, stupid!
But it’s not only about human rights. We at Emakina believe that allowing such governmental control would significantly weaken the “permissionless innovation” that underlies the tremendous Internet-based economic growth. The unprecedented success story of the Internet is owed to the fact that it was built bottom-up, powered by ordinary people, without rules or regulations imposed from above. While we fully recognise that the Internet can be abused (like any other infrastructure) and its users harmed, we must not choose a “cure” that causes more damage than the actual illness. As Vinton Cerf puts it, “the benefits of the open and accessible Internet are nearly incalculable and their loss would wreak significant social and economic damage”.