The global labour movement has made a direct, eleventh hour appeal to the United Nations, urging the Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon to reject changes to cyber governance that could see the end of an unfettered, free internet.
A new letter, from Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, has been sent in the wake of a leaked Russian proposal for new, UN sanctioned rules to allow the monitoring and censorship of incoming – as well as outgoing – internet traffic, ostensibly under the guise of tightening cyber security.
The ITU insists that its proceedings are “completely transparent”, arguing all 193 voting nations have access to documents and proceedings.
However the only way non-voting “netizens” or companies can access the conference documents is by joining the ITU – at a minimum cost of US$20,000 a year.
According to Burrow, it is “extraordinary” that a technical organisation with a limited mandate such as the ITU should be allowed to stray into such “politically and economically important areas.”
In her letter to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Burrow argues that the plan is even more surprising given the growing number of organisations within the UN system, such as Unesco, which have “genuine experience of operating in a truly multi-stakeholder political environment”.
“We are now less than a week away from the WCIT (World Conference on International Telecommunications).
"Our own efforts to draw the attention of our constituency, and through them their governments, to the risks involved to their broader interests are gathering pace.
"We all know that issues related to such an intersecting range of vital interests as world trade, freedom of information, workers’ and other human rights, the environment and sustainability, investment and infrastructure are often not well coordinated in capitals,” she wrote.
“But these are the very foundations of future social and economic development and would all be adversely impacted by the imposition of uniquely governmental regulation upon the internet...I am particularly concerned that some countries may be drawn into supporting superficially attractive proposals to impose a price mechanism which would slow down the growth of internet access and use in poorer countries in particular,” she wrote.
Anxiety has grown worldwide as more information has emerged about a bloc of governments’ – including China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Russia – secret push to seize control of the conference and force abandonment of the current, multi-stakeholder model of internet governance.
Opponents argue that this free-wheeling framework has evolved and thrived for two decades under the watch of non-government international organisations such as the Internet Society and ICANN.
Telecommunications ministers from 193 nations are expected to attend the conference with the US, UK, major European democracies and Australia already publicly opposed to any reform that could pave the way for future restrictions on both internet content or its users.
The ITU, created in 1865 to govern nascent telegraph technology, argues that its regulatory framework was last reformed in 1988 and is in urgent need of updating.
Until now, the little known body has been responsible for telephony and telecommunications including assignation of country dialing codes and telco satellite orbits.
However the new plan would see it expand its remit to the internet, potentially paving the way for new controls as well as geographically controlled pricing regulations that could see big hikes in the cost of email and communications such as Skype.
The ITU’s proposal has since united a disparate group of critics and opponents, including search engine giant, Google, human rights and environmental groups such as Greenpeace, labour and trade union bodies and civil society and free speech advocates.
According to Burrow, any change to internet governance must be postponed until it can be debated openly by all stakeholders.
“[The] Internet Governance Forum (IGF), another product of the 2005 World Summit on the Information Society. . .would appear to provide an avenue to meet our concerns.
"[It] has met every year since 2005, most recently in Baku, Azerbaijan earlier this month and is a forum that brings together all interested parties…the IGF agenda is set annually by a Multi-stakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) [and] civil Society is already well represented,” she wrote.