New threat to internet freedom

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Out of public view, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a UN agency, is working on a proposal to give governments more control over the internet. The effort is supported by a number of countries including Russia, Brazil and China, and if it’s successful it could mean the end of internet freedom.

After the WikiLeaks-affair and the Arab Spring, an increasing number of countries would like to ‘democratise’ the internet. China India, Brazil and South Africa all use the ITU as a platform to advance their plans, says Dieuwertje Kuijpers from the Telders Foundation, a research agency connected with the pro-market VVD party.

“It’s a useful platform for them, enabling them to set rules about what is and is not allowed on the internet.” That includes rules for both acceptable behaviour and internet regulation.

Russia and China were the first UN members to propose setting up the International Code of Conduct for Information Security. The code lists the rights and responsibilities of states when it comes to the web. The rules also make it possible to fight internet criminals and extremists attempting to undermine the ‘economic and political stability of the state’ - in other words, bring order to the chaos. The first thing was to get rid of ‘trivial’ aspects like the right to anonymity and privacy on the web. The proposal was considered somewhat laughable in US and Europe but the controversial code of conduct is now getting a second chance.

India, Brazil and South Africa are calling for the creation of a new UN organisation to monitor and protect equal access to the internet. The UN Committee for Internet-Related Policies (CIRP) would consist of 50 member states, along with four advisors from the business world and society. Many people don’t realise that this committee would mean the end of the so-called multi-stakeholder principle that everyone has a say in the internet. The 50 countries represented would decide how around 6 billion people are allowed to use the internet.

Dutch Green Left MP Arjan El Fassed believes that restraint is necessary:

"The growth and development of the internet is possible precisely because it belongs to everyone and no one. Many different groups would like to control aspects of the internet, from the entertainment industry to governments. The danger is that regulation will be used to disguise attempts to take control. That’s bad for everyone.”

The United Nations is the last body that should be dealing with this issue, according to Dieuwertje Kuijpers: "The UN is too bureaucratic and opaque. That makes it almost creepy.” It’s also impossible to make this kind of agreement on the basis of consensus.

The ITU has proven its usefulness in the past. The agency facilitated the liberalisation of the internet in the late eighties, guaranteeing access for everyone without restrictive international frameworks. National governments are responsible for the rules of usage. Independent organisations such as ICANN ensure the technical standards and stability of the internet.

It’s unclear exactly what the proponents of government control actually wish to accomplish. Clearly, cyber security, privacy and data storage concerns are part of their agenda, but so far the draft text has not been released to the public. Given the radical nature of the proposal, the public has a right to know more about the plan.

Arjan El Fassed thinks the Netherlands should refuse to continue negotiating until the ITU proposal is made public:

"The majority of users will benefit from an open internet, not from more control. The problem with these proposals is that civil society has almost no say. The Netherlands should have the courage to stand up for those users, like other European countries.”

"Member States shouldn’t wait for ratification, they must have a say now,” says Dieuwertje Kuijpers. "This process started back in 2005. There is no earthly reason to be taken by surprise if the proposal is presented at the end of this year at the telecom conference in Dubai.”

The ratification of the controversial anti-piracy law ACTA has already demonstrated that politicians have little idea what these agreements entail. Specialists in the field of civil rights and internet freedom had to explain what ACTA means to computer illiterate MPs and civil servants. They cannot afford to be that ignorant this time around, says Kuijpers:

"ACTA was a picnic compared to what the ITU is planning.”


See also: The Economist - In Praise of Chaos