Google steps up pressure on UN’s internet treaty conference

Net users fight back as governments struggle to gain more control of the internet through a UN body.

Google has stepped up pressure to ensure that the ongoing United Nations, UN, organised Conference on International Communication keeps the internet open and free from proposed regulations.

Government representatives from around the world are currently meeting in Dubai to renegotiate the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs), the binding global information and communications treaty.

Governments at the meeting include those that do not support a free and open Internet, who are expected to present a proposal to globalise internet censorship.

Government, latecomers to the internet technology, would use the conference to seek greater control of the net which now webs over two billion people around the planet.

World Conference on International Telecommunication
World Conference on International Telecommunication

Users, experts, and organizations from around the world have voiced their opposition to governments regulating the Internet through the ITU.

At the conference, some countries will press to tactically pull off control of internet’s technical specifications and domain name system from U.S. bodies, to an international organisation similar to the UN. Literally, that means increased censorship and regulation for the internet, an outcome Google and most net users say is against the basic principle of the internet, freedom and openness.

The attending governments would work behind closed doors to reach the decision. Engineers, companies, and people that build and use the web have no vote at the conference.

Google said it is concerned that “only governments have a voice at the ITU” and not companies or others who had a stake in the net. It said the World Conference on International Telecommunications, WCIT, is “the wrong place” to make decisions about the internet’s future.

The UN has said any change to current internet arrangement would be by a consensus.

Google is asking web users to add their name to an online petitionto support its campaign to keep internet free and open.

google petition graphic
Google petition graphic

“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 said, in a running online petition against the conference’s agenda, which has gathered at least 1.3 million signatures.

‘Dangerous proposals’

There is a growing backlash on internet freedom, with 42 countries filtering and censoring content. In the last two years, governments have enacted 19 new laws threatening free expression online. Many governments attending the conference will press for the global adoption of their country’s internet policies.

The treaty conference and proposals are confidential. The ITU did not publish proposals from each government attending the conference; but a couple of these have been leaked and net users say such proposal, if adopted will annihilate the internet.

“Some proposals could permit governments to censor legitimate speech – or even allow them to cut off internet access,” Google said in its petition.

“Other proposals would require services like YouTube, Facebook, and Skype to pay new tolls in order to reach people across borders. This could limit access to information – particularly in emerging markets.”

A site called Wcitleaks, run by researchers at George Mason University, revealed details of a proposal to be submitted by Russia suggesting that the U.S. should have less control over the internet’s operation.

“Member states shall have equal rights to manage the internet, including in regard to the allotment, assignment and reclamation of internet numbering, naming, addressing and identification resources and to support for the operation and development of basic internet infrastructure,” the Russian proposal said.

The internet is currently managed by non-profit bodies that are officially funded by the U.S. Department of Commerce, but effectively operating independently from the US government.

Russia’s view is supported by other internet censoring countries like China. But the U.S. ambassador to the conference, Terry Kramer, said his country will fight to keep it.

He argues that the current internet management has “functioned effectively and (U.S.) will continue to ensure the health and growth of the internet”.

Self governing sphere

The internet has managed to exist as a free and open space where anyone can speak, create, learn, and share. It is controlled by no one — no single organization, individual, or government even though it connects the world.

Today, more than two billion people are online — about a third of the planet — and connected to the web.

Some governments have maneuvered laws to limit expression on the internet, but it still largely remains a self regulating sphere. Google is pushing that governments alone should not determine the future of the Internet.

“The billions of people around the globe that use the Internet, and the experts that build and maintain it, should be included,” it said in its petition.

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