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UN Attempts To Legislate The Internet

In three weeks, you may not be able to read this content free of scrutiny. You may not be able to read this content at all. The U.N. is holding a conference in Dubai meant to address Internet oversight. While there are plenty of benign agenda items scheduled for the conference, such as methods to reduce scams and Internet phishing schemes, there are some proposals that could have devastating effects on the way that citizens across the globe use the Internet.

Commercial Ramifications

Some proposals set to be discussed during the two-week convention are about privacy and Internet censorship. Some, however, have managed to draw the attention of corporations like Google and Facebook for proposed changes to the way international content is viewed. The proposals in question would require companies like Google to add additional fees for using the content in other countries. This proposal alone would impact billions of individuals living outside of the U.S. who use services like Google.

Currently, the Internet operates on a premise of net neutrality: all traffic is treated the same way, no matter who controls the site or what political message the content contains. The United States just fought its own internal battle against two pieces of legislation that would have irrevocably harmed the balance of power. Aimed at stopping Internet piracy and illegal downloads, the legislation could have enabled the government to increasing tracking and censorship of Internet usage. These measures were defeated, but Internet users across America began to get involved in questions of Internet censorship more so than ever before, making it unlikely that the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) measures would go unnoticed.

It is extremely unlikely that companies like Google and Netflix would choose to shoulder the burden alone: many of these costs and fees would shift to the consumer. This would make it much more difficult for low-income countries to maintain consistent access to particular sites on the Internet. While some individuals would be able to do so, it is unlikely that the majority of the population would be able to keep up with these prices.

The alternative would result in Internet dead zones, areas where sites simply do not function. If companies decide to pay these fees without shifting responsibility to the consumer, they will likely only provide service to high volume areas where they are likely to see a return on their investment. This might seem like a business concern, but it would pose a huge risk in censorship-driven countries. In countries like North Korea where the news is completely controlled by the government, citizens have no outside access to information. While there is now only one country with such complete control over the Internet and news flow, there could be ten tomorrow if these proposals are successful.

Totalitarian Rule

The United Arab Emirates, host of the conference, has faced scrutiny this year for its Internet policies, which allow prosecution of people who criticize authorities or organize acts of civil disobedience. It seems unlikely that a conference held in such a location is capable of propriety at all. With countries like Iran and China in attendance, there will no doubt be similar measures proposed: harsh, anti-free speech propositions that will allow government officials to use to Internet to target political opponents.

The ITU has been secretive so far about the exact nature of these proposals, and it is not surprising. There will be a huge public backlash if the public discovers that actors at the ITU are seriously considering proposals that would allow strict Internet censorship rules. Some of this behavior already takes place in countries like China, Iran, and many Gulf states, but there is no international law that gives them the jurisdiction to do so. If the UN were to ratify a treaty with provisions for increased government censorship, the future of freedom and democracy in many states would be in danger. The revolution in Egypt has been hailed by the media as a “Twitter Revolution” for the instrumental role that social media played in organizing the rallies, riots, and meetings that ultimately put an end to Mubarak’s rule. If Egypt had simply been able to cut off access to Twitter, Facebook, Google, or even the Internet itself, the revolution might never have occurred. There were certainly attempts on the part of the Mubarak regime to control or black out the Internet, but all met with international condemnation and ultimately failed. These ITU measures would give totalitarian rulers across the globe power to do just that: strike down opposing political groups with the legal authority to do so.

Likely Outcomes

The U.S. has sent over 120 people as part of its delegation to the ITU, in part to fight back against delegations from countries like Iran, China, and the UAE. In a battle that might surprise some, the U.S. delegation will also be up against several European delegations who want to force U.S.-based Internet providers to pay fees when services occurs in foreign countries. These countries are looking for methods to raise income for their own broadband and Internet services, but are likely to face a lot of opposition, not only from the U.S. but also from banking meccas like Switzerland, who advocate for net neutrality.

The most important thing that people can do is increase awareness about the (admittedly vague) ITU proposals across the globe. There is no doubt that censorship measures will face significant resistance from other delegations, but it is not just censorship legislation that citizens need to worry about. As is often the case, legislation concerning Internet scams could be written so broadly as to impact the everyday Internet user. Our delegations need to keep a close eye on the details of every proposal likely to be voted on, to ensure that no portion of any law threatens freedom and free speech on the Internet. If representatives at the conference are under tight pressure from the public at home, they are more likely to fall into line and fight back against countries pushing for measures that could change the most basic tenets of the Internet.

UPDATE: How is the telecom conference proceeding? From Reuters:  http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/12/04/us-un-internet-treaty-idUSBRE8B316I20121204

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