OPINION: ITU’s December meeting will threaten Internet freedom, promote censorship

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a UN agency responsible for international information and communication technologies regulations, is scheduled to meet in Dubai, UAE from December 3 to 14 to revise the International Telecommunications Regulations treaty for the first time since 1988.

The treaty governs how telecommunications traffic is exchanged across the globe. Ken Hanly, a Canada-based philosophy professor, observes that much is at stake in the negotiations as some countries are introducing proposals that could jeopardize Internet freedom and promote its censorship.

A number of other proposals have the potential to award the UN more authority to control the Net. Set up in 1865 to regulated the mechanical telegraph, the ITU is now recommended by countries including China, Russia and Saudi Arabia as capable of regulating the Internet, and that it should be armed with extensive UN-backed powers.

The countries argue that the ITU could ensure that the Web is used for “rational purposes” and that “it doesn’t “interfere with internal affairs of other countries.” One rule would enable nations to demand that other countries monitor the Internet traffic on their stead.

As at present, the ITU has 193 member countries. The United States will be represented by a group of 95 people, including Obama officials and representatives from Verizon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft. In addition, representatives of advocacy groups and trade organizations led by Ambassador Terry Kramer, who is a former Vodafone executive, will also feature at the event.

According to Kramer, the U.S. is committed to maintaining free speech and human rights apart from just liberalized markets in the telecommunications industry.

A number of countries have already expressed readiness to expand the extent of the treaty towards regulating information exchange on the Internet. According to the United States, the treaty should be confined to telecommunications network.

Kramer maintains that nations such as Iran and China will propose language that could urge online censorship and state monitoring of Web traffic.

Prof. Hanly points out that the countries pushing for the proposals claim that their suggestions are primarily designed to prevent Internet threats including cyberattacks, child pornography or spam. Nevertheless, the methods used could be applied for other purposes. According to Prof. Hanly, the reasons backed on the proposals are minimally a means to ensure Web traffic is monitored.

Harold Feld, of the consumer interest group, Public Knowledge, said: “Taking this one step higher to an international fora where we’re imposing a set of duties that will be implemented on the ground by many different countries — each with their own different interpretation about how to balance these security concerns against free speech and due process — that’s asking to create accusations of censorship.”

Some analysts have pointed out that issues of cybersecurity shouldn’t even be subjected to discussion at the conference.

Federal Communications Commission’s chairperson Julius Genachowski argues that cybersecurity regulations shouldn’t be addressed in an international treaty at all.

Google is recalled to have warned that a number of proposed changes to the treaty have the capacity to increase censorship aside from posing as a threat to innovation.

Google further suggest that several countries are making proposals that would demand the people using the services including Skype, YouTube and Facebook to pay fees to reach people in other countries. Such proposals, “sending party network pays”, could force content providers to pay fees for delivery outside country of origin.

Russia has made suggestion, which the U.S. has since opposed, that some or all of the powers of the present Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) be scrapped, arguing that ITU could assume these powers.

According to ITU, critics whose claims are that a new treaty will threaten free speech and promote censorship remain unsubstantiated.

Sarah Parkes, a spokesperson for the ITU said: ” The protection of people and their right to communicate online is already enshrined in treaties that take precedence over anything that we will discuss in Dubai.”

She observes that a treaty proposal required immense backing from member states to make it into the final treaty version as even a small extent of dissension would make a proposal to be dropped.

Parkes further claimed that the treaty would not change the way the Internet was governed.

“There’s nothing that’s coming up in this conference that touches on Internet governance or proposes changing the current mandate of the organizations that run the Internet,” she said.

Overall, it is wise to maintain vigilance.

Posted in: Internet

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