Serious issues set to surface at Dubai internet gathering
NET RESULTS:This week promises to be a sticky wicket for the internet. Sorry, but I couldn’t resist the pun. In this case, I’m talking about WCIT, the World Conference on International Telecommunications (pronounced “wicket”), which begins next week in Dubai and is being portrayed as a kind of net shoot-out at the OK Corral.
Centre stage will be some very serious issues for the internet. Decisions made here, at what normally would seem to be a rather dry meeting of international bureaucrats, could fundamentally alter how the internet functions and is (or isn’t) controlled.
Already, there are international ructions over a proposal that the United Nations body hosting the event, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), should be given regulatory control over the internet.
The net does more or less function autonomously. There are some existing policy oversight bodies, such as ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). There are groups that work to agree various standards for communication. And there are international telecommunications policies. But these, and a broader, international consideration of how the net is best managed, have not been touched in any significant way since the last WCIT gathering.
It’s been a long, long time since the last conference: 1988 to be exact. So long ago that the internet was little more than an academic, military and research network. Few of us had a home computer back then. Faxes were the hot new technology and “mobile” phones were the size of bricks.
The notion that, one day, I’d be walking around with a small featureless rectangular screen without a dialpad that lets me instantly message people, make sci fi-like video calls, take pictures and send them anywhere, and jump instantly on to the internet (as well as phone my mother) would have seemed ludicrous.
And that’s the challenge for this conference, which will try to agree a new treaty affecting how telecommunications companies exchange and manage traffic. As the internet runs over the world’s telecommunications networks, this isn’t any longer a set of decisions that primarily affects call traffic, as in 1988.
These days, just about anybody can get online on to the internet’s incredibly powerful and far reaching network, from nearly anywhere, in not-easily-controllable ways. You don’t need a clunky computer; all you need is a device that fits innocuously into a trouser pocket. We have seen the implications of this: organised and articulate dissent within authoritarian states.
So pre-conference, tensions have been rising between developing countries and more authoritarian states – both of which would like more say in the way the net is managed – and countries (and private companies, including most in the tech sector) that feel the status quo has worked for years and keeps this network open and more immune to manipulation by a single state or regime.
There are 193 countries in the ITU. At the moment, most seem to favour granting the body regulatory powers to manage the internet – giving individual countries greater power to manage service providers and content. Some, such as African states, would also like to impose charges on internet traffic, making companies such as Google pay for users’ access to their services, and have more ability to track users and what they do.
Unsurprisingly, the United States and the European Union strongly oppose any move to hand management of the internet to the ITU, and want to leave things as they are. So do many companies, with some of those potentially most affected, such as Google, leading a global awareness campaign to block such a shift in governance. Net pioneer and Google’s internet evangelist Vint Cerf sent out an email to a vast mailing list arguing that such a change must not take place or the internet would be altered beyond recognition.
For developed countries in the west, there are, of course, financial and business imperatives at stake in having the net remain a relatively unfettered and free global network, not a series of potentially gated communities each with its own rules and regulations, subject to greater state control.
But there are, clearly, also serious consequences for human rights defenders, and for civil society and civil rights, if the internet becomes subject to the whims of political regimes or bureaucratic institutions such as the United Nations.
Some within the ITU have argued that concern is misplaced and that the likely end result of this conference is “light touch” regulation. But who knows what that actually means? In the meantime, it will be a worrying 12 days that too easily may go unnoticed by the world. Without stout opposition to these proposals, we may wake up to a new year in which the internet is no longer the network we have known.