Vidya Ram

Internet freedom at stake?

VIDYA RAM | Updated on November 25, 2012 Published on November 25, 2012

The upcoming ITU meet at Dubai has fuelled fears of the UN telecom body grabbing more control over the Net and its working.

If you don’t work in the telecom sector, chances are you have not heard of the International Telecommunication Union. The influence of this rather obscure Geneva-based UN body is quite striking: it is responsible for everything from managing and allocating spectrum and telecom satellite orbits, to allocating the country dialling codes, and more broadly, setting the standards for the global telecommunications system.

The Union’s regulations (ITRs), signed by 178 countries, provide “the only truly globally agreed principles today on international telecommunications,” its Secretary General Hamadoun Toure explained in a speech at Columbia University earlier this year.

However, could this body be about to extend its reach in a rather unsavoury way by attempting to include the governance of data privacy, security, access and the routing of data on the Internet within its remit, potentially enabling authoritarian states to clamp down on dissent?

Fears that the ITU could stage what amounts to an under-the-radar “Internet grab” at its conference to review the existing ITRs due to be held in Dubai at the start of December, have brought together an unlikely coalition of campaigners — from Google, the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the body responsible for coordinating the system of domain names, to trade unions and civil society organisations.

Some contend that signatory states of the ITU will attempt to wrest control from the multi-stakeholder institutions, which are currently responsible for governing the Internet. The inclusion of the Internet in the ITRs — last negotiated in 1988 when the Internet was still in its infancy — would have significant implications for its future, argues Paul Twomey, a former CEO of ICANN.

ITRs “are a leftover of the intergovernmental treaty process in the mid-20th century by which mostly state-owned and always monopoly telephone companies set technical standards and met to set international tariffs…it was an era of monopoly and limited innovation.”


“The Net prospered precisely because governments – for the most part – allowed the Internet to grow organically, with civil society, academia, private sector and voluntary standards bodies collaborating on development, operation and governance”, wrote Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet, and Google’s “chief Internet evangelist,” in a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times.

In a policy statement issued earlier this year, the US State Department’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs expressed its concerns about some of the proposals to extend the reach of ITRs to the Internet, and made clear that it intended to oppose them at the forthcoming conference.

Civil society groups have also expressed their concerns about the intentions of some of the governments seeking such provisions. A top-down, government-led approach could enable “the suppression of free speech, and hurt openness, and inhibit creativity and innovation,” says Marta Cooper of the Index of Censorship.

In a recent letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, the International Trade Union Congress, and Greenpeace have expressed their concerns about the run-up to the conference. They have warned that some proposals submitted for consideration by the ITU’s World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) --- which seek to “undermine the currently free, open and inherently democratic governance of the Internet” -- might just be “the tip of the iceberg.”

A number of draft documents for the conference, prepared by participating countries, have fuelled concern. One set of proposals from Russia leaked on the Web site WCITLeaks, includes suggestions such as giving member states “equal rights to manage the Internet,” “the sovereign right to establish and implement public policy,” and the right to “regulate the national Internet segment.”

Other concerns relate to specific clauses, and technical definitions, such as the treatment of spam, which some campaign groups and unions fear could be broadened to subject them to interference by states.

Another relates to proposals that would accord member states the right to regulate the routing of data through their boundaries.

The ITU, for its part, has vehemently denied any attempt at a “Net grab.”

“WCIT is definitively not about taking control of the Internet or restricting people’s freedom of expression or freedom of speech,” said Toure in the Columbia University speech. “It’s about laying down the principles to ensure global connectivity, not global Internet governance.”

Following the latest leaks on WCITLeaks, the WCIT issued a statement describing some of the leaked versions as “inaccurate.” Others are also wary of over-estimating the impact the conference could have. “Countries that want to censor the Internet can do it and are already doing it,” says Milton Mueller, professor at Syracuse University and author of Networks and States: The Global Politics of Internet Governance.

“The idea that ITRs could be used as leverage is not an immediate threat.”


Mueller acknowledges the push for a governance system away from the current approach to a more intergovernmental framework, though he argues that this is unlikely to happen, as the latest moves are simply part of a wider battle to shift governance of the Internet away from the US.

“Countries have been wanting to bring in the intergovernmental system for more than ten years now but have consistently failed in their attempts,” he says.

He believes that any attempt to shift to such a system would destroy the ITU and ITRs “because the major business players in Internet governance would start to ignore it.”

However, it is not just governance issues that are in the frame at the conference, but also questions about future pricing models.

Campaigners have also expressed concern about proposals put forward by the ETNO, a body representing several European network operators (and again published on the WCITLeaks Web site), which suggest incorporating the so-called “sender pays” model (against the current unregulated system where commercial deals are struck between parties).

Under this they could charge for lucrative content, to provide the telecom sector with adequate returns on investment as they continue to contend with declining fixed line revenues — a move that campaigners argue could have major implications for the Internet economy — and not least for Internet telephony services such as Skype.

Campaigners acknowledge that proposals being put forward for the summit may indeed not go through, but argue that the way it has been handled — with limited consultation with non-governmental forces — leaves a lot to be desired, and reveals the need for discussions on a much more inclusive forum.

The forthcoming WCIT meeting may well pass without any action on the areas that concern campaigners.

However, the issues — from the most appropriate way of regulating the Internet, and ensuring a truly global voice in this process, to dealing with the impact that the Internet has had on the economy and telecom pricing systems — are likely to be a matter of heated debate and negotiation for some time ahead.

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Published on November 25, 2012

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