UN proposals threaten the Internet as we know it

Posted by Catherine Hart on Wed, 09/19/2012 - 10:58

Image from Getty Images via MediaSpin

Written in collaboration with Steve Anderson; cross-posted from the Huffington Post.

In July we posted an update on some moves being made by the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to take over management of the Internet. We were concerned about this development because allowing the ITU to control the Internet could allow nations like China and Russia to legitimize undemocratic practices, including censorship and control over their citizens’ Internet access. As a result, we joined with the pro-Internet community to demand that when the issue is debated in December at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), these negotiations are transparent and civil society groups and the public are able to participate.

So far, we haven’t seen any meaningful attempts at transparency, and there are a number of new concerning developments.

Some of the proposals under consideration call for the ITU to address cybersecurity issues. While the security of networks and of information are important concerns, the Centre for Democracy and Technology (CDT) contends that the ITU is ill-suited to providing effective solutions. In a recent report the CDT asserted that, due to the pace of technological change, it is unlikely that government bodies alone will be an effective source of technical solutions. Rather, as others like the European Coordinating Council of the Internet Society have pointed out, we should be looking to multi-stakeholder efforts, public-private partnership, and collaboration with technologists, academics, and civil society groups.

But the new cybersecurity proposals do not support this kind of open, collaborative approach. Instead the proposals could be used to allow governments of certain countries to legitimize their oppressive censorship and surveillance practices in the name of ‘security’.

In addition, ETNO, an association of European telecom operators, has put forward a proposal that would limit the availability of content online by fundamentally changing the way the Internet works. The CDT reports that a central feature of the Internet is that anyone, anywhere, can reach anyone else in the world without having to negotiate with a middleman or worrying about which service provider is being used by their audience. However under the ETNO proposal, content providers would have to pay to connect with incumbent telecommunications operators in order to reach businesses and individual users.

This proposal is clearly an attempt to get undeserved revenues transferred from successful online services providers to already very profitable telecom giants -- an issue we’ve posted about here. Big Telecom giants have been concerned with the growing popularity of these services for some time, and are looking for ways to ensure that content providers will have to pay for the supposed ‘extra costs’ required by services. However research suggests that these claims hold little weight.

OpenMedia is continuing to collaborate with the pro-Internet community to raise awareness of the proposals from member states and big telecom companies which threaten to systematically restrict Internet freedom at a global scale. The global community needs to put pressure on the ITU to open up these negotiations to other relevant stakeholders, guaranteeing transparency and accountability.

We are deeply troubled by ITU proposals that seek to apply outdated telecommunication policy to the Internet. Any ITU process pertaining to Internet governance should be decentralized, transparent, accountable, and open to participation by Internet users and all stakeholders, with equal footing.

Check out the CDT’s new ITU Resource Center and stay tuned at openmedia.org.