An unfettered internet, free of political control and available to everyone could be relegated to cyber-history under a contentious proposal by a little known United Nations body.
Telecommunications ministers from 193 countries will meet behind closed doors in Dubai next month to debate plans to hand control over the internet to the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU).
The move has sparked a ferocious, under-the-radar diplomatic war between a powerful bloc of nations, led by China, who want to exert greater control on the net – and democracies determined to preserve the free-wheeling, open architecture of the World Wide Web.
The battle for control has also seen a cartel of telco corporations join forces to support the changes, arguing for amended pricing regulations which critics warn will pave the way for significant increases in the cost of day-to-day internet use, including email and social media.
However in an unprecedented show of unity, civil rights groups, big communications corporations and labour unions are to meet in London on Monday to launch a global campaign and petition titled ‘Stop the Net Grab’.
Led by the ITUC, it will appeal to the UN and ITU itself to immediately open the plan for global debate and demand a delay of any decision until all stakeholders – not just governments – are given a voice.
According to ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow, urgent global action is needed as the “internet as we know it” comes under very real threat.
“Unless we act now, our right to freely communicate and share information could change forever.
“A group of big telecommunications corporations have joined with countries including China, Egypt and Saudi Arabia that already impose heavy restriction on internet freedoms,” she said.
“So far, the proposal has flown under the radar but its implications are extremely serious.
“Governments – and big companies the world over – may end up with the right not only to restrict the internet and monitor everything you do online but to charge users for services such as email and Skype.”
Change for a digital age?
The ITU, created in 1865 to regulate embryonic telegraph technology, wants the overhaul of global telecommunications regulations (ITRs) to acknowledge the revolution brought by the digital age and re-define its remit to absorb the internet.
The so-called ITRs were last reformed at a global summit in Melbourne, Australia in 1988, more than two years before a British scientist by the name of Sir Tim Berners-Lee sent the first successful message between an HTTP (Hyper Text Transfer Protocol) client and server via the internet.
However a draft of the new regulations, formulated in secret and only recently posted on the ITU website for public perusal, reveals that far from being innocuous updates to keep pace with technological change, the new ITUs could legitimise widespread state and political intervention under the guise of national and international security.
If accepted, the changes would:
• Allow government restriction or blocking of information disseminated via the internet
• Permit a global regime of monitoring internet communications, including the demand that those who send and receive information identify themselves
• Require that the internet only be used in a ‘rational’ way
• Allow governments to shut down the internet if there is the belief that it may interfere in the internal affairs of other states or that information of a ‘sensitive nature’ might be shared
With just one month before the summit however, a growing chorus of disparate critics – from computer scientists and communications policy specialists to civil rights groups, big net corporations and labour unions – warn that centralised intervention and censorship on the internet is not the only danger inherent in the proposal.
A further raft of proposed amendments, prepared for the national telecommunications corporations under the umbrella of the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association (ETNO) argues for ‘sender pays’ pricing models to be placed on the table for future commercial telecommunications negotiations.
The push to broaden pricing regulations stems from a growing desire by the national telco giants, some state-owned and others recently privatised, to claw back greater return from the burgeoning internet revenue ‘pie’.
ETNO’s submission, which includes the views of Italian, German and French carriers has now been leaked on the special website, www.WCITleaks.org.
According to their submissions, regulations should be amended to “ensure an adequate return on investment in high bandwidth infrastructures” while “operating agencies” should be allowed to “negotiate commercial agreements to achieve a sustainable system of fair compensation for telecommunications services.”
Analysts argue that these changes, if accepted, would allow telecoms to obtain more revenue from content and platform providers.
However this would not necessarily lead to increased internet access as many companies would be increasingly reluctant to invest in user communities deemed to be less profitable. This would affect poorer, less developed countries as well as not-for-profit organisations.
Indeed, the violation of net neutrality, say policy experts, would create a new hurdle for entrepreneurs and innovators, particularly those with less capital or financial resources to sustain risk and growth.
Burrow said the campaign was necessary also to ensure that workers in the telecom sector – as well as those in other industries – were given the chance to “be at the table not shut out of discussion as is the case today.”
The plan to amend pricing regulations, say its critics, is simply an eleventh hour attempt by some big telcos to up-end current business models and squeeze more revenue from the internet.
Since its inception, the internet has worked on the principle of what is known as a ‘dumb’ network which delivers and pushes content through without concern for ‘what’ that traffic actually is or who owns it.
Whether it be an individual router or one of the global networks of International Exchange Points (IEPs), the principle stays the same and this is built into the DNA of the internet.
But the big national telecommunications corporations who have invested in and built the networks and much of the global infrastructure are increasingly becoming frustrated by the massive growth and success of net-based businesses which use their ‘highways’.
They want to move up the value chain and the only way left, they argue, is to introduce charges to get more bang for their buck, applying old models of caller pays, telephone charges to a non-linear, 21st century phenomenon.
Said Burrow: “An internet totally controlled by government and big business contradicts the very essence of what the internet represents – open and free access for all.”
To sign our petition to stop the ‘net grab’ visit: http://www.change.org/netgrab