Tuesday, 11 December 2012

WCIT – internet regulation needs input

As discussed recently, a United Nations mandated technology unit (ITU) is in the midst of revising a 24 year old telecommunications treaty during a 12 day conference in Dubai.  The delegates who will make these critical decisions, and inform policy going forward, are government regulators from around the world.   Although spin doctors will do their best to say all views (civil society, corporate interests) are on the table, this is not so.  In fact, the largest internet company in the world, Google, is campaigning for a free and open internet stating that “some governments want to use a closed-door meeting in December to increase censorship and regulate the internet”.

internet freedom
Internet freedom in a decades time?
Moreover, global campaigning group, Avaaz, launched a global campaign on 7 December 2012 with similar goals to Google.  They state:

As citizens of the world and Internet users, we call on you to reject any changes to current Internet regulations that would weaken or alter the free and open nature of the Internet…”

This movement is aided by the fact that computer scientist Vincent Cerf (referred to as the father of the internet) has warned of the potential threat the WCIT-12 poses to internet freedom. As stated on CNN’s website, the WCIT-12 could push up internet access costs, restrict free speech and stunt future growth.  A further leaked WCIT-12 PDF document outlines proposals by a bloc of member states including Russia, UAE, China, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Sudan and Egypt.  The proposal seeks to give governments the sole authority to regulate the internet, impose tariffs and generally looks to redefine the internet playing field. An excerpt from the proposal reads as follows:

Member States shall have the sovereign right to establish and implement public policy, including international policy, on matters of Internet governance, and to regulate the national Internet segment, as well as the activities within their territory of operating agencies…”

This proposal caused a storm of controversy and reports by TechWeek Europe confirmed that the proposal has been taken “off the table” with various parties now claiming the document was never officially put forward.   

A free and open internet has given the world an entirely novel communications and business platform – we have seen nothing like it since perhaps the invention of the telephone.  It has enabled politicians to effectively communicate with potential voters, enabled an online world wide library where a plethora of information and how-tos are freely available, created an environment where a variety of artists are able to put themselves in the shop-window, made it possible for millions of people to generate unique revenue, develop themselves and generally communicate with and be a part of the global planet we find ourselves in.

While some governments argue that the internet requires a new global set of rules to assist the developing world, the free market approach, as noted by Vincent Cerf, is the most viable model to sustain growth and development. Clearly, this argument suits Cerf (Google employee) and Google down to the ground.  After all, Google’s business model is based on gathering all the freely available information and presenting it to us.  If government regulators take this task, Google starts looking on shaky ground with its Search product.  That aside, Google, Cerf and others put forward convincing philosophical and economic reasons why the internet must be free and open.

The United Nations, along with formalizing a regulation base, basically wants to open the internet up to developing countries and increase the availability of the internet worldwide.  Laudable. However, doing so at the expense of further growth and development of the internet would be unwise at best.  If there is to be a treaty agreed upon it must remain technology neutral – what is standard today will be prehistoric in a decades time – and it must seek to balance the needs of those already using and developing the internet.

Equally important is freedom of expression.  The internet, in my view, thrives because of this (notwithstanding the fact that 21 countries are guilty of “pervasive” or “substantial” internet filtering). The starting point must always be “publish and look at what you like” but “face the consequences” if it is deemed immoral or unlawful at the time. 

The ITU should be looking forward and including the engineers, designers and business people who made this machine. They understand it because they built it.  The WCIT-12 is not the forum for a discussion where decisions made now may affect the internet for generations to come. That forum must include interested parties from all sectors.  Hopefully, the ITU will concede that the approach used at WCIT-12 was, in hindsight, not the best one.  Hopefully, they will have the graciousness to realize that all interested parties should be a part of this – no one owns the internet, and certainly not 193 government regulators….

If you haven’t already, take 2 minutes of your time to sign Google’s petition or the Avaaz.org petition.

A free and open world depends on a free and open Internet. Governments alone, working behind closed doors, should not direct its future. The billions of people around the globe who use the Internet should have a voice". Google, 2012.

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