WCIT and the Future of the Internet
Today marks the beginning of the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai, in which delegates from over 190 member states will spend two weeks updating the International Telecommunications Union’s (ITU) International Telecommunications Regulations for the first time since 1988. The ITU, which is an agency of the United Nations, uses this set of regulations to standardize global communication networks and the technologies behind them. The proceedings of which, including the positions and proposals of each member nation, are being conducted in secret and all transcripts detailing what has been said are being adamantly withheld from the general public.
As you can expect, this has lead to quite a bit of worry that the outcome of this two week conference could be the end of privacy and a rise in censorship. As it turns out, you’d be right to worry, as its already happened quite a while back.
“Member States already have the right, as stated in Article 34 of the Constitution of ITU, to block any private telecommunications that appear ‘dangerous to the security of the State or contrary to its laws, to public order or to decency.’ The treaty regulations cannot override the Constitution,” said Hamadoun Touré, the ITU Secretary-General.
So, if this right is already enumerated in the ITU’s Constituion, then what about the WCIT has everyone so concerned, including “father of the internet” Vint Cerf?
According to Emma Llanso of the Center for Democracy & Technology, while some of the outcry regarding an “end to the internet” may be blown out of proportion, certain countries are attempting to treat communication on the internet more like the telephone, and in doing so, provide individual governments better grounds for monitoring the internet usage of their citizens.
In particular, the change in treating the internet like a telephone connection would possibly lead to governments instituting fees that would effectively tax individual websites for the privilege of utilizing their telecom networks in a way similar to how telephone companies handle long-distance phone calls, such as the so-called “termination fee” proposals by certain Middle Eastern countries where websites hosting a web session must pay for routing its data to the recipient. Not only does hosting web content become far more expensive, but it also becomes far easier to trace.
“You can also read it as a campaign,” said Llanso, “to make all internet communication more traceable and more trackable, invading users’ privacy.”
Given the number of internationally popular websites that are based in the U.S., this move would not only potentially invade the privacy of many users, but also potentially damage the United State’s e-commerce dominance. Understandably, this threat has caused Terry Kramer, the head of the US delegation, to become quite outspoken about the risk this would pose to U.S. companies.
“That model, in general, lends itself to fewer providers, higher prices, slower take-up of internet, slower economic growth,” said Kramer.
Additionally, Kramer has also been very out spoken on the potential dangers inherent in some member state’s proposals so far, particularly Russia’s request for all members to have ”equal rights to manage the internet,” which Kramer believes would only lead to more censorship by government’s who would lobby for additional measures to prevent global access to sites that only certain countries find questionable.
“There have been proposals that have suggested that the ITU should enter the internet governance business,” said Kramer. ”There have been active recommendations that there be an invasive approach of governments in managing the internet, in managing the content that goes via the internet, what people are looking at, what they’re saying.
“These fundamentally violate everything that we believe in in terms of democracy and opportunities for individuals, and we’re going to vigorously oppose any proposals of that nature.”