Activists gear up for fight on UN web controls

Internet freedom advocates are braced for a fight ahead of a key meeting of a major UN body that governs global telecommunications regulations.

Activists gear up for fight on UN web controls

The question of who controls the web has been an ongoing debate, and the issue is top of the agenda at a secretive meeting of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) – a branch of the United Nations – next month.

There’s considerable confusion over exactly which countries are behind which proposals to add the internet to the ITU’s list of regulatory responsibilities, something campaigners have told PC Pro equates to a land grab that could make it easier for countries to impose restrictions on web traffic.

The key issues under debate surround the consequences of adding the internet to the tools already covered under International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) that govern how countries and companies treat communications. Critics believe it a push by the ITU to maintain relevance as communications move from telephones to the internet.

Among the topics under discussion will be the ITU’s role in web administration with regards to issues such as how traffic is routed and peering agreements.

Some of these governments are trying to use a closed-door meeting in December to regulate the internet

However, other proposals being put forward have raised concerns because they would make it easier for individual countries to block content they didn’t like.

“The UK, US and Canada and most of Europe don’t want these high level controls,” said consultant Dominique Lazanski, who will be attending the conference as part of the UK delegation, at an Open Rights Group meeting earlier this week. “The UK and Europe are the good guys in this case.

“In 2010, it was decided to revise ITRs, and there are lots of proposals by different countries, some that want to restrict traffic, manage content, restrict agreements or charge more for appearing online, and some of the proposals are to do with security issues and fighting spam.”

The proposals up for discussion were first spotted on the ITU website by Australia’s News Limited, which reported how the draft proposals “would allow government restriction or blocking of information disseminated via the internet and create a global regime of monitoring internet communications”.

The site’s analysis found the proposals “included the demand that those who send and receive information identify themselves … it would also allow governments to shut down the internet”.

Of course, these measures have been used by governments in the past, in China and the Middle East, for example, but there are fears that including such measures in the ITRs would legitimise web blocking and net neutrality abuse.

Web-freedom backlash

In the run-up to the meeting, campaigners as diverse as the European Union and Google have called for support in a bid to stop the ITU from taking control of the internet

Google thinks people, not just governments should have a say in decisions regarding the web.

“There is a growing backlash on internet freedom. Forty-two countries filter and censor content,” said Google in a Take Action site call to arms.

“In just the last two years, governments have enacted 19 new laws threatening online free expression,” Google said in its manifesto calling for web users to sign a petition against the moves. “Some of these governments are trying to use a closed-door meeting in December to regulate the internet.”

The European Parliament this week passed a resolution that urged members to vote against the transfer of web power to the UN believing that “no single entity, like the ITU, should be able to exercise top-down control over the net”.

However, while the EU’s stance shows it is against the proposed changes, its politicians have no vote on the ITU’s actions, which are covered by national bodies.

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