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Is Internet Freedom in Danger?

Ray Le Maistre

Tension in the global networking community is growing ahead of the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12), which begins next week in Dubai, as claims about Internet governance conference proposals are published online.

The conference is organized by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) , the United Nations body best known for its standards and spectrum frequency allocation work. The event, which runs from Dec. 3-14, has been organized to review the existing International Telecommunications Regulations (last negotiated in 1988!), consider revisions and debate proposals from the ITU's 193 member states.

The potential impact of some member state proposals, particularly those expected from Russia and some Middle Eastern and African states, are fueling the controversy. Those proposals have adopted the European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association (ETNO) suggestions regarding a charging mechanism for Internet traffic and they call for national management of the public Internet and the regulated ability to individually identify all Internet users. (See this assessment of ETNO proposals by Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) for more details.)

Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) decided that the conference could lead to Internet censorship and regulation and so started its free and open campaign, laying down its concerns in the What's at stake part of the campaign website and urging individuals to join its protest.

The ITU countered Google's campaign in a blog, THE GOOGLE CAMPAIGN – AN ITU VIEW, pointing out that the conference is not a "closed-door meeting," as Google claims, and that the process leading up to the conference has been open and transparent.

Google, as we all know, is a powerful company: Its campaign has spawned a multitude of blogs, articles, tweets and all manner of proclamations about the nature of Internet access.

Even the European Parliament got caught up in the furor, issuing a resolution noting its concern about the potential impact of some proposals on the "the internet, its architecture, operations, content and security, business relations and governance, as well as the free flow of information online." You can read the resolution by clicking on this hyperlink -- but you'll have to concentrate hard to get through the formal presentation of the Parliament's views.

The ITU wasn't too happy with the European Parliament: It published another blog, the title of which speaks for itself -- EU PARLIAMENT RESOLUTION ON WCIT FLAWED.

On Twitter and elsewhere, ITU representatives repeat over and over that the ITU is not a body that has any interest in governing the Internet and does not have the power to do so, throwing its hands up in the air in exasperation each time it counters a claim (OK, so that's just how I am visualizing it … but you know what I mean).

But the ITU isn't helping its own cause. It claims the process leading up the conference is entirely transparent, yet the proposals to be discussed in Dubai cannot be viewed by members of the public -- they are for the eyes of ITU members only. That membership, by the way, includes the part of Motorola that Google now owns, so the Web giant has had the opportunity to have a look at, for example, Russia's proposal.

In addition, the ITU's secretary-general, Dr. Hamadoun Touré, has told Reuters that "light-touch" regulation regarding cybersecurity could be agreed by ITU member states if there was a "consensus." Read the full Reuters article here.

It's that sort of comment that sets the alarm bells ringing for those worried about the Internet being controlled and regulated.

The ITU spoke with us on the issue. See Page 2 of this article for details.

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User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:17:02 PM
re: Is Internet Freedom in Danger?

This is a delicate situation and the ITU is required to behave in a certain way, so I do wonder if it is going to be dumped on whatever happens. 

The thing is, its track record and reputation as a very political, machiavellian organization (I'm thinking back to the 1990s and early 2000s) won't be helping...

User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:16:51 PM
re: Is Internet Freedom in Danger?

The title suggests that there is some kind of universal freedom on the Internet, which is suddenly threatened by ITU. This is highly questionable.

Practically all countries use the net to spy on their citizens. Most countries also block web sites, not due to national security but relatively small crimes such as copyright issues.

At the same time, corporations are assembling massive amounts of personal information about us. This information is shared with authorities, and will most probably eventually leak out. When will Google have their first Bradley Manning?

The question here is: What is the biggest threat to internet freedom - ITU regulation changes, or Google?

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