Monday, 3 December 2012

Free and open internet? (WCIT 2012)



Today is the start of the world conference on international telecommunications (WCIT -12), hosted by the United Nations specialised agency for information and communication technologies (the ITU), to re-negotiate a 24 year old telecoms treaty. A leaked copy of the draft compilation of proposals is available to view here.
open internet
Free and open internet?

The conference (attended by government regulators from 193 countries) has the vital task of reviewing the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs), adopted in Melbourne in 1988.  Since then, we have seen dramatic changes in technology and the manner in which countries and individuals utilize the internet, and telecommunications in general.

Although the 1988  ITR’s were “forward looking”, the essential element of this conference will be to debate and finalize new ITR’s for worldwide application. This has got Google and other heavy hitters in the internet space worried about censorship, regulation and the future “control” of the internet.

One school of thought (propagated by the European Union) is: If it ain’t broke; don’t fix it.  The corollary to that is the internet, in the words of the ITU’s secretary-general, remains the rich world’s privilege. Equally, it is also argued that the current 1988 ITR’s are out-dated and in dire need of a revamp. So, here we are.  A world conference to decide the shape and future of the internet.  One would expect ALL stakeholders to be invited, participate and a level of transparency for the public and interested parties.  Unfortunately not. 

Google is not present, and for that matter, no corporate body, civil rights group, or anyone other than government regulators are permitted to attend and participate. In my view, this is foolhardy. Transparency at least?  Nope, afraid not.  The entire set of pre-proposals and certain specific details are not available amidst a conference that appears to be shrouded in secrecy. A few proposals and documents have been leaked on the internet, but nothing official yet.

On the ITU, Google states the following:

Only governments have a voice at the ITU... engineers, companies, and people that build and use the web have no vote.

Further, the so-called “father” of the internet (a Google employee since 2005), Vinton “Vint” Cerf, has also described the proposals as threatening internet freedom. Google has launched a campaign to attempt a stop to draconian regulations and censorship stating that a free and open world is dependent on a free and open web. Another way to describe this, and a term that has surfaced in recent years is, net neutrality. For what it may be worth, I fully agree. It seems I am not alone.  The European Union (EU) member states recently passed a resolution wherein it noted and agreed upon, amongst others: the “lack of transparency and inclusiveness” around WCIT; the fundamental principal of net neutrality; freedom of expression and free market principles. A PDF copy of the EU resolution is available to view here.

In addition to the EU’s passed resolution of 20 November 2012,  the EU, along with the United States of America are looking to form a coalition to block a proposal by Russia and certain African countries to impose a levy (fee) on internet traffic. There are also fears around “tracking” internet use by the same countries.  A PDF copy of the controversial Russian proposal is available via wcitleaks.org and is available here.

In response, Richard Hill, part of the WCIT preparatory process since 2004, has stated that the EU’s resolution referred to above is based on a “flawed” understanding of the conference and the UN’s function.  He states further that the resolution is “misleading” and put forth to protect certain companies’ commercial interests.

Be all of that as it may, on 29 November 2012, amidst much hooplah about the conference destroying internet freedom, the ITU passed resolution number 69, resolving to end discriminatory internet access.  Briefly, discriminatory internet access can be described as content providers of the internet (ISP’s) unilaterally blocking access to content on the internet.

From an individual perspective, one would assume privacy and all consumer privacy laws are taken into account here.  Ultimately, the ITU must consider governmental, commercial and corporate interests in internet and telecommunications development.  Of course, the view of government regulators is critical, and perhaps should have more weight in a voting process, but the view of the corporate entity (entities) that have built the internet into the fabulous tool that it is today (creating millions of jobs, driving enormous revenue) MUST be consulted. MUST be heard. And, MUST be part of the decision making process.  To exclude them and operate in secrecy is not the best approach.  However, the secrecy shortfalls notwithstanding, the ITU is making all the right noises over the last few days and it is probably a “wait and see” approach, for now. 

Update: more here.

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