The internet has been lauded as the 21st-century communications platform, the great equalizer, bridging the haves and have-nots, the information superhighway, and the global town hall. Any other utility so pervasive and essential would likely be highly regulated, requiring numerous international standards, multinational oversight, and legal structures. Without these pillars in place, the development would be slowed or thwarted by questions of confidence and reliability. Instead, the internet has grown by leaps and bounds without much official support and has managed to stay away from the mires of politics. But those questions of confidence and reliability remain.
Lately, the internet has been attracting more and more attention from governments—from many Western countries seeking to gain revenues from internet-based sales to repressive regimes hoping to avoid more Arab Springs and other disruptions to their powerful grasps. So far, the internet has been controlled (though the word “control” is probably an overstatement) by a loose federation of organizations as it has moved from being a developing potential to becoming a mature platform. But today, issues of governance and development have become more acute. Many very serious issues exist that make this transition fraught with problems, pitfalls, and perils. We seem to be mired in 20th-century assumptions, laws, and practices which don’t seem to fit the need for meaningful, planned growth of the internet. How can we provide entrepreneurial energy and ever-changing technological flexibility to the internet while ensuring clear, impartial international oversight, privacy guarantees, data protection, and clear, regulated global access?
In Dubai last December 4–13, representatives of nations across the glove met to discuss—in the first ever conclave of this type—the future of the internet. The meetings were filled with rancor and divisiveness, marking the meeting as an important, though ominous, milepost concerning the future of the internet itself.
WCIT Sends Shockwaves Felt ’Round the World
The internet has proven disruptive to publishing, commerce, education, and most other industries and now faces challenges as it disrupts governments, especially controlling ones that can’t be expected to take this assault without a fight. Thus the stage is set for the first skirmish in perhaps the most important challenge to the development of the internet in the 21st century.
Nearly 100 years before the United Nations was founded, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) was established to set technology standards and payment systems for international phone calls. ITU, now a unit of the U.N., helped develop the standards ensuring that different countries’ telephone networks were compatible. It continues to allocate the global radio spectrum and communication satellite orbits.
In recent years, the ITU has worked to take a lead in electronic content issues, internet traffic, cyber-security, and other related issues. In 2012, the ITU proposed a global conference to “review the current International Telecom munication Regulations, which serve as the binding global treaty designed to facilitate international interconnection and interoperability of information and communication services, as well as ensuring their efficiency and widespread public usefulness and availability” (itu.int/en/wcit-12/Pages/default.aspx).
More than 900 changes to the International Telecommu-nication Regulations were on the agenda for consideration. Most, such as blocking spam messages, reducing mobile roaming fees, and giving priority to emergency calls, were not seen as controversial. In planning the conference, the ITU allowed individual countries to publish proposals rather than release them through the organization, a process that led to rumors and fears about political motivations and other potential backroom dealing.
The ITU’s 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunication (WCIT) meeting, by itself, sounds like a rational method to gather the world’s leaders to discuss the internet—something that hasn’t happened before on this level. Even before the opening speeches by representatives from the world’s 193 nations were given to start the 11-day WCIT, however, it was clear that the meeting’s general focus was seen by many as putting the future of the internet at risk.
Terry Kramer, American ambassador to the conclave, noted:
[T]here 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.
–“Amb. Kramer on International Telecommunications Conference,” U.S. Department of State, Nov. 29, 2012; translations.state.gov/st/english/texttrans/2012/11/20121129139303.html#axzz2DvSZBtwp
The European Parliament issued a resolution in the weeks before the meeting which enumerated EU concerns about the conference and its potential impacts:
[A]s a consequence of some of the proposals presented, the ITU itself could become the ruling power over aspects of the internet, which could end the present bottom-up, multi-stakeholder model; expresses concern that, if adopted, these proposals may seriously affect the development of, and access to, online services for end users, as well as the digital economy as a whole; believes that internet governance and related regulatory issues should continue to be defined at a comprehensive and multi-stakeholder level.
–“Joint Motion for a Resolution,” European Parliament, Nov. 20, 2012; europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?type=MOTION&reference=P7-RC-2012-0498&language=EN
The U.S. House of Representatives passed its own resolution (H.Con.Res. 127)—and the passage was unanimous even in this era of legendary legislative acrimony. The resolution called on U.S. officials to make clear to the ITU and other international organizations that it is the “consistent and unequivocal policy of the United States to promote a global Internet free from government control and preserve and advance the successful multi-stakeholder model that governs the Internet today” (Sept. 10, 2012; govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hconres127/text).
An upstart, WCITLEAKS.org, began disclosing some unofficial documents said to be on the agenda for the meetings in the days leading up to the conference (wcitleaks.org). Some of the documents were proposals calling for greater control of the internet by individual nation states, proposals to ban anonymity from the web, exposing individuals or dissident groups to exposure, and worse. One document, leaked to the site, was a proposal by a coalition, including some Arab states and Russia, that could result in increasing internet censorship, surveillance, and state control.
Google’s chief internet evangelist, Vint Cerf, often called one of the fathers of the internet, wrote an impassioned plea for “transparency and openness” that took a stand against “a state-controlled system of regulation [that] is not only unnecessary, it would almost invariably raise costs and prices and interfere with the rapid and organic growth of the internet we have seen since its commercial emergence in the 1990s” (“‘Father of the Internet’: Why We Must Fight for Its Freedom,” CNN, Nov. 30, 2012; edition.cnn.com/2012/11/29/business/opinion-cerf-googleinternet-freedom/index.html). Google set up a webpage (http://freeandopenweb.com) and urged people to sign a petition and lobby public opinion across the globe to fight any efforts to thwart internet development. The effort led to more than 3 million using the #freeandopen hashtag on social media, and 1,000-plus organizations from more than 160 countries lent their voice to oppose any “closed-door meeting in December to increase censorship and regulate the web.”
The Arab Spring and other events show that the internet can easily be used to voice concerns by anyone—something not favored by repressive regimes. The internet also opens doors to ideas that might create political dissent or worse. Leading up to the conference, ITU head Hamadan Toure made it clear that he did not favor individual state control of the internet, but felt that issues such as cybersecurity, child safety online, and anti-spam regulations require management by an entity such as ITU.
A Digital ‘Cold War’ Ahead?
Can a technology initially designed to help a small, tightly knit group of researchers communicate—a technology now transformed into an industry-changing, regime-shattering, and still-growing global powerhouse—keep out of harm’s way, avoid the crosshairs of political extremes, disgruntled or disaffected tinkerers, and terrorists? Can the existence of such a powerful yet ethereal entity remain free of political influence, or is that a Utopian bubble? Will the internet inevitably be captured, controlled, regulated, channeled, and usurped to support other visions—political, commercial, or something else?
The final WCIT proposed treaty was rejected by the U.S. as well as other largely Western countries. This time we dodged the bullet, as nothing decisive came from the conference. However, clearly the struggle for a free internet is just beginning. “It is clear that the world community is at a crossroads,” Ambassador Kramer reflected in his Nov. 29, 2012, statement. “By agreeing to broaden the scope of the ITU’s rules to include the Internet,” noted FCC commissioner Robert McDowell, “encompassing its operations and content, these nations have radically undermined the highly successful, private sector, non-governmental, multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance” (“Commissioner McDowell’s Statement RE: Today’s Action at WCIT-12,” The FCC, Dec. 13, 2012; fcc.gov/document/commissioner-mcdowells-statement-re-todays-action-wcit-12).
An insightful analysis published in The Economist cautioned:
[T]he most important result of the conference has been to demonstrate that the world now splits into two camps when it comes to the internet: one is comprised of more authoritarian countries, which would like to turn back the clock and regain sovereignty over their own national bits of the internet; the other wants to keep the internet and its governance as it is (bearing in mind that some of its members’ motives may not always be as pure as they pretend). This sounds much like a digital version of the cold war. The funny thing is that the leading countries in the two camps are the same two that were at loggerheads until the iron curtain parted.
–“A Digital Cold War?” Babbage blog, The Economist, Dec. 14, 2012; economist.com/blogs/babbage/2012/12/internet-regulation
Information professionals have much more to be concerned about. We certainly need to be more aware of the growing pressures on the very existence and structure of the internet. The internet has developed very rapidly; however, there is still much work left to be done—and information professionals have a key role to play for the security of our information systems, our users, and the internet itself. We live in a political world that lacks any clear global understanding or definition of what the internet can or should be. The recent ITU WCIT conference may have ended without negative consequences, but we can be assured that these issues will continue to arise.
For a look at how the internet is currently governed, see the supplemental content sidebar “Who Governs the Internet Now?” for this article at infotoday.com/onlinesearcher/extras/Herther--Who-Governs-the-Internet-Now.pdf.