Next month, the little known UN agency the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is holding a conference in Dubai, to discuss regulating the Internet. The World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) is an event that could have serious implications for the freedoms we’ve become used to online.
The ITU isn’t like many parts of the UN that we’re used to working with. It was set up in 1865 (predating the TUC by 3 years!) with the remit of co-ordinating telegram systems globally. Since then, it’s picked up responsibility for other telecoms networks too, and does good work to make sure the world’s wires and airwaves don’t get scrambled. They set inter-country telecoms regulations periodically, and the last time they did this was in 1988.
Decisions at the ITU are made by one country one vote, with each of the 193 votes generally going to the minister responsible for telecoms. No country has veto powers on a majority decision. Companies can pay (a lot) to join as non voting observers, but any civil society engagement is extremely limited and has no influence, either at the ITU level or indeed with many of the member states’ positions.
It’s certainly not as inclusive as UN agencies like the ILO, and not in keeping with the general multi-stakeholder direction that Ban Ki-Moon has outlined as his preferred approach for the UN to operate. This is something not lost on the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC. No relation of ITU btw!) and Greenpeace, who have written openly to him to intervene. The ITUC met with the ITU head on 15 November, and came away from the meeting even more worried than before.
The ITU also seems to operate on a Fight Club basis, with participants almost as secretive about their ideas for it as the central body is. Very little was known about the business of the upcoming conference until civil society pressure and a series of leaks by a couple of academics (using a site they named WCITleaks) embarrassed them into revealing draft proposals. A point not lost on UNESCO, which welcomed the “recent” ITU decision to publish its WCIT draft (not a friendly phrase in UN-speak) and has set out its concerns about freedom of speech.
What these proposals indicate is a mess of different intentions pulling in different directions, many of them deeply worrying.
Most headline grabbing perhaps are ideas from a group of countries such as China, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Proposals would require companies to monitor all internet traffic through Deep Packet Inspection, and co-operate with countries’ (potentially very wide ranging) security concerns, blocking undesirable traffic. When countries like Iran talk about restricting uses of the Net that they don’t consider “rational”, it’s a fair bet they aren’t thinking about LOLcats.
Now, many countries make use of these techniques at the moment, though use in most more open countries it’s restricted to strictly judicially regulated cases. It’s not hard to see how moving to a position where snooping is the default has the potential to end very badly for civil society in many authoritarian countries.
As unions and activists, the web has given us phenomenal power to level the playing field with governments and corporates. Losing it at a stroke would weaken our rights in the liberal west, but would be a catastrophe for those seeking to uphold human rights under restrictive regimes and wanting the world to know and bring pressure. No Arab Spring. No Pussy Riot. Not even an Ai Wei Wei Gangnam Style.
With this move, countries like China are cynically subverting international channels simply to help them do their domestic dirty work. Eroding everyone’s human rights for the convenience and legitimisation of oppressive governments is hardly a noble position for the UN to find itself in. Plus of course this represents a big departure for the ITU as well. It’s in effect no longer seeking to regulate just the smooth technical operation of the system, but is moving into how people might choose to make use of that system.
And then there are technical concerns. A lot has happened online since 1988, and many (like the Net’s co-inventor Vint Cerf f’rinstance) think this may have been precisely because the Internet’s phenomenal development was not planned at every turn by a committee of telecoms minsters, but rather evolved within a multi-stakeholder model, with government, commerce and civil society all playing vital roles.
A number of governments (many with ailing state-owned telcos) are keen on the idea of tracking every bit of Internet traffic across their borders, so they can tax it or charge foreign web companies on a sender-pays model. We need a system that’s sustainable for the telco industry too, but this kind of misses the point of how traffic flows around the Net. Monitoring all traffic in detail, or moving to sender-pays could make the Net vastly less efficient and resilient, and need huge technical redevelopment.
This could lead to a two tier internet, with corporates and certain traffic types let through, and civil society marginalised or blocked. If it starts costing content owners to send traffic internationally, how much of the internet are developing countries likely to be cut off from, just because those countries have too low an average revenue per user? And if they’re cut off from the Net, they’re cut off from commerce, education, science and culture – a huge further disadvantage to those countries.
As there’s no veto, a straight majority vote (for which our usual suspect regimes are lobbying very hard) would mean countries that disagreed had to refuse to ratify the treaty. Ducking international obligations like that isn’t comfortable, but in any case it would be pretty futile – the Net would fracture, and companies working across borders (ie just about everyone online) would still need to comply to be used when the treaty was in force.
There are a whole stack of legitimate concerns here. Governance of the Net may currently be multi-stakeholder, but many believe the US exercises a disproportionate influence over the Internet, and the systems and institutions we do have aren’t ideal. The Net has done pretty well without regulation so far, but ultimately any decisions about making its regulation more accountable or effective need to be discussed and taken in a forum which, like the web itself, represents all of our society.
We’re backing an ITUC international petition, to be collected and presented to the various international delegations going to the WCIT. If you’re as worried as we are about the future of the Net, please take a moment to sign it. The vote could be close, and civil society needs to be doing all it can in the last weeks to make it clear there are some principles at stake here that are bigger than many of the petty and disingenuous reasons behind a number of the proposals.