At ITU's Dubai conference, what's not being said about Internet freedom rings loudest

Samantha Bookman, FierceTelecomFor the past few months, the United States and Internet freedom advocates worldwide have sounded the alarm about the WCIT conference being held in Dubai from Dec. 3-14. At stake, they say, is the right to free and unrestricted expression, and furthermore, the foundation of the Internet itself.

But to hear the ITU talk about it, this historic conference, in which delegates will review the current ITRs (international telecommunication regulations)--something that hasn't been done since 1988--is really nothing important.

On Monday, ITU Secretary-General Dr. Hamadan Toure tried to redirect attention from weeks of bad press on the motives of the conference in a "nothing-to-see-here" performance that fooled no one.

"Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers," Ghana Business News reported Toure as saying on Monday at the conference's opening session.

Then, Toure invoked the security card. "If you--your personal information, your banking details and even your identity--are not secure, then how can you use ICT with trust and confidence? …We can all benefit from: cyber-resilience instead of cyber-threats; cybersecurity instead of cybercrime; and cyberpeace instead of cyberwar."

It was an interesting thing to say at the start of an historic conference where freedom of speech via a major mode of communication is purportedly not, absolutely not, on the line. Essentially, if you read into Toure's comments, you've got the right to say what you want, as long as it doesn't threaten your nation's security.

Myth making

Dr. Toure told reporters and attendees that one of the biggest purposes of the conference is to make broadband affordable and accessible to developing nations, and said the idea that the conference will impact open communications on the Internet is a "myth." (In fact, there's a myth-busting document on the WCIT-12 website, just to stress the idea that a lot of the talk about what's being discussed about the Internet is a myth.)

Making broadband accessible is a laudable goal and has been one of the ITU's major topics for several years, including at the ITU Telecom World conference earlier this year (also in Dubai). But don't think for a minute that anyone believes the ITU called a special conference in December just to talk about affordable broadband access.

The WCIT 2012 conference was called specifically to review the ITRs, for the first time in more than 20 years. Some of the major participants at the conference, such as China, Russia and India, want changes made that would offer something close to ITU approval for control of the Internet within their respective borders.

"Put crudely, the different sides are those who want greater control over the Internet by governments, those who prefer greater control by 'multiple stakeholders,' and advocates of expanding the dispersed power of the global network's two billion or so users," a Pacific Standard columnist wrote in August.

Spinning the bottle

Of course, it isn't just a simple matter of control within one's borders, or of redistributing global management of the Internet so that it's supposedly more equitable for everyone (and not so dominated by the United States). There's too much evidence of regimes cracking down on free speech, of corporate interests making access and opportunity more difficult in certain places, to simply sit back and believe the spin that the ITU is putting on this, which is that changes to regulations or recommendations won't make much difference in the current ITRs and, more damnably, that the ITU doesn't have any say in how a country decides to enforce certain regulations, other than to require that the country inform the ITU what it is doing.

Vint Cerf, currently Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG) chief Internet evangelist but better known as one of the "fathers of the Internet," voiced his opposition in a recent CNN op-ed.

"Some proposals leaked to the WCITLeaks website from participating states could permit governments to justify censorship of legitimate speech--or even justify cutting off internet access by reference to amendments to the [ITRs]," he said.

"Several authoritarian regimes reportedly propose to ban anonymity from the web, making it easier to find and arrest dissidents. Others have proposed moving the responsibilities of the private sector system that manages domain names and internet addresses to the United Nations. Yet other proposals would require any internet content provider, small or large, to pay new tolls in order to reach people across borders."

Vint Cerf isn't fooled, and neither should you be.

Making broadband more affordable and accessible globally is important. But if you regulate away the freedom to communicate openly across international borders, if you make doing business on the Internet unprofitable, all that affordable broadband won't mean a thing when innovation and initiative are smothered by censorship, taxation and stifling regulations.

Cerf's active opposition to the understated goals of the conference, along with that of other groups, led the ITU to allow public comment on the agenda of WCIT-12 in July.  Whether that will have any effect on the discussion or votes of the conference delegates--this is a closed-door, confidential meeting, after all--remains to be seen. Very likely, it won't change the minds of the delegates whose countries want, plain and simple, more control over the data crossing their borders, no matter what that data is.--Sam