UN's ITU Could Become Next Internet Freedom Threat

Some of the lessons learned from the dangers of legislation like SOPA should be the need for forbearance and a well-researched, multi-stakeholder derived policy to avoid unintended consequences.
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Internet freedom is again under fire for ostensibly noble reasons. After a narrow escape from Congress's SOPA legislation, Internet freedom is in the international crosshairs of a large group of nations, including many of the world's most undemocratic governments, seeking to give themselves control over Internet policy. Their target is the creation of new international legal rules that would allow them to legitimately impose censorship and monitor users' online activities.

The Internet's ability to empower people is feared by undemocratic countries. It's even a challenge for the governments of democratic countries to resist the temptation to tinker with Internet fixes for various social causes.

Sometimes the reasons for interference with users' activities spring from defendable intentions: stopping crime or blatant copyright abuse as we saw with SOPA. Internet openness would have been collateral damage if Congress had passed that legislation, which would have required U.S. companies to create privatized Internet censorship regimes in hopes of reducing copyright infringement.

However, once filtering, censorship or traffic redirecting tools are developed and deployed, they can be used for a variety of reasons -- not just for the purposes that first got the regulations enacted. Some of the lessons learned from the dangers of legislation like SOPA should be the need for forbearance and a well-researched, multi-stakeholder derived policy to avoid unintended consequences.

We've been concerned about similar efforts that could result in a treaty giving a United Nations agency new power to "manage" the Internet. Russia, along with China, North Korea, Iran and other notably nondemocratic countries, are advocating for international regulation of the Internet through a treaty-based organization in the United Nations -- the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

These countries are also asking for a "cyber arms control treaty." But the real goal is to give governments the international legal cover to declare information they don't like a "danger to the state" and therefore the equivalent of cyber warfare so they can censor it. An article in the World Affairs Journal outlines Russia's patient, organized effort over more than a decade.

The article warns, "If diplomats are not careful, one by-product of a push to regulate state-on-state cyber conflict could be a new effort to subject Internet activity to political scrutiny." It points to the efforts at the ITU as a telling example of this trend.

These countries have also pushed this agenda in other venues:
•Suggesting at the UN General Assembly in 2011 that a code of conduct for Internet use should be mandated in international law (and conveniently giving the governments of the world the right to determine what is outside the limits of the code);
•Proposing to create a new UN agency that would be a 'super agency' responsible for managing all aspects of Internet policy -- with, naturally, governments having the only vote.

There are warning signs that 2012 is lining up to be particularly important in this fight.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin met last year with the head of the ITU and said "international control over the Internet" is critical.

As officials plan for a major ITU conference, the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), countries like China and Russia plan to try to significantly expand the authority of the ITU, according to former U.S. Ambassador David Gross.

Russia, China and their partners are expected to use this conference intended to renegotiate the ITU's telecommunications regulations to expand its mandate to regulate the Internet. To succeed, they need a majority of the 193 member states to agree. The proposals could dramatically change everything from access and affordability of the Internet to oversight by the ITU -- and therefore governments -- of ICANN, the IETF and other organizations responsible for elements of the Internet's architecture. Unlike the ITU, these organizations use a multi-stakeholder approach where all voices are a part of the process of decision-making -- but none control the others.

As FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell pointed out in his Wall Street Journal editorial last month, proponents of Internet freedom need to play offense not just defense by encouraging all interested parties, including governments and the ITU, to examine the economic and social benefits of the open Internet and to broaden the multi-stakeholder approach to managing Internet concerns.

The SOPA/PIPA battle that roused Internet users to the threats to this critical communications tool and awakened politicians to the power of Internet users is a small, though significant part of the growing Internet freedom war. The stakes are high. The outcome of these upcoming negotiations in Geneva, will affect every Internet users' access to information and ultimately the relationship every government has with those they govern.

CCIA has been engaged in this fight for years, on the ground, alongside other companies and NGOs. Those who value Internet freedom around the world need to spread the word and encourage their country to reject upcoming pressure to alter international regulations to control the Internet and its users.

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