This week a private United Nations meetings called the World Conference on International Telecommunications (or WCIT). will be held in Dubai that could significantly alter the future of the word wide web or internet. Is the future of "Internet freedom" really at stake here? Will it be the end of the "open internet"?
This could be true as Google and a member of the U.S. delegation warned.
"We want to maintain a platform of a free and open Internet as a platform for free expression," Patrick Ryan, an attorney at Google, said at a forum organized by Stanford Law School here yesterday afternoon. Google has organized a new campaign to draw attention to the summit, saying some governments "are trying to use a closed-door meeting in December to regulate the Internet."
The conference is held by the U.N.-sponsored International Telecommunication Union's (ITU). The conference is seeking to update a 1988 document called the International Telecommunication Regulations Treaty(PDF). Some of the proposed changes could make it possible for governments to censor Internet content. Other proposals would even enable governments to shut down Internet access in their countries.
ITU officials have attempted to downplay criticism, saying that whatever is decided at the World Conference on International Telecommunications, or WCIT, is up to the member countries that are sending delegations to Dubai. Hamadoun I. Touré, the ITU's secretary general, wrote in an opinion article in Wired last month:
Governments are looking for more effective frameworks to combat fraud and other crimes. Some commentators have suggested such frameworks could also legitimize censorship. However, 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."
He also said that fears on a new treaty that would allow countries to tax Internet content providers and give the ITU and its member nations the power to control Internet addresses are unfounded.
On the other hand a Wikileaks-like site, WCITLeaks.org, has been posting some of the confidential proposals from various countries, but it only has acquired a small fraction of the total, and the ITU has refused to release the rest.
Having an official mandate to let ITU members control how Internet access points are assigned and monitored would make the whole internet easier to manage and censor.
The other big issue is a proposal that started with a group of European telecom operators, to charge Internet content providers fees or taxes when they serve Web content to users inside various countries.
The concept is called "sender party pays" and was floated out by the European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association (ETNO) this summer which is strongly opposed by companies like Google, Facebook, and Netflix.
There also are questions about a conflict between the passage of an "Internet tax" and international laws already on the books at the World Trade Organization, and if the ITU even has standing to control the Internet, since it was designed to monitor telephone, television, and radio networks.
The bottom line is that the WCIT meeting will shine more light on the Internet as a global phenomenon; the United States' key role in running the Internet; and the concept of freedom of speech as a global idea.