The Internet, the greatest invention for the free flow of information since the printing press, is under increasing attack by undemocratic governments that want to control their peoples’ access to information. They want to get their claws on the Internet.
The latest assault came at the U.N.’s World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), which occurred last month in Dubai. Those countries that want to subject the Internet to global regulation and concentrated government oversight were beaten back – but just barely. And these forces of Internet darkness will, like Darth Vader, strike back again.
For twelve days, delegations at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) from around the world debated proposals to amend a treaty on international telecommunications that was last updated in 1988 -- long before the Internet was available for public use.
By the end of the conference, 89 countries had signed the revised treaty to get control of the Internet including Russia, China, and many of the Arab states. Thankfully, however, a majority of the 193 ITU member states were not signatories as of the closing ceremony. These included those not in attendance and the 55 countries that declined to sign in Dubai, such as the United States, Kenya and Japan.
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The divide between those who did and didn’t sign was based on profound beliefs on what is the best path for a successful digital future. It is not representative of rich versus poor or East versus West. Rather, it was based on the principle of whether or not the Internet should be subject to the whims of U.N.-like bureaucrats and governments fearful of their citizens having free access to information.
Traditionally authoritarian regimes were advocating for a stronger grip on Internet-related activities and the content flowing over the networks, using a treaty that only governs telecommunications as a vehicle.
Countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom went into the conference publicly drawing a line in the sand on any inclusion of the Internet in the treaty.
Often spun as a movement to reduce Western dominance over a global medium, countries pushing for stronger language and expanded reach, such as China, Algeria, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the like, were quick to try to paint the United States as the “bad guy.” Empty accusations were hurled that the U.S. and others were not genuine in backdoor negotiations.
Conveniently, the public was never privy to such discussions, which is exactly why from day one, the United States stated it would not negotiate deals in closed-door talks, calling for negotiations to take place in a public venue, such as the plenary sessions.
Such discussions often painstakingly centered on the most contentious language, focusing on SPAM, or “bulk electronic communications,” security, the scope of the treaty and Internet governance. The devil was in the details, and it all came to semantics, as broad terms with no definition could be interpreted by governments differently, legitimizing nefarious actions.
A non-binding resolution that was incorporated after a confusing late-night show of hands, declared that “all governments should have an equal role and responsibility for international Internet governance and for ensuring the stability, security and continuity of the existing Internet and its future development and of the future Internet.”
While seemingly benign, this resolution is akin to giving governments a carte blanche to limit access to the Internet in their countries, as well as serves as a justification for censoring, monitoring and controlling the Internet usage of their citizens.
But for the past two decades, the Internet has grown exponentially worldwide due to the “hands off” approach to global governance. The multi-stakeholder, decentralized model that it has adhered to has spurred investment, in turn increasing deployment, access and thus resulting in societal and economic opportunity.
Countries that oppose the treaty do not have to abide by it; however it could cause a ripple effect for Internet users across the globe as networks and the flow of information are treated differently across borders. FCC Commissioner Robert M. McDowell stated, “Consumers everywhere will ultimately pay the price for this power grab as engineers and entrepreneurs try to navigate this new era of an internationally politicized Internet.”
It is unlikely that there will be any adverse immediate impact to the Internet since the treaty does not take effect until January 2015. It is also difficult to foretell the business and legal implications of expanded jurisdiction and how it is interpreted by participating member countries. After all, the intentions of countries like Iran and Russia could very well be substantiated through a treaty this broad.
And so, there are two sides to the Internet debate, and they are headed in completely divergent directions. The United States and others of a like mind are upholding the principle of an Internet of the people, free from government control, while authoritarian regimes and their allies are pushing toward a repressive, closed model, under the auspices that government knows best.
The ITU treaty notwithstanding, these conflicting mentalities are likely to be the basis of a global dialogue moving forward, particularly looking into the 2014 Plenipotentiary, during which the role of the ITU will be discussed.
At the end of the conference, Ambassador Terry Kramer, head of the U.S. delegation, noted, “It is clear that the world community is a crossroads in its view of the Internet and its relationship to society in the coming century.” While the importance of global dialogue was made clear in Dubai, so was the fact that the ITU is not the appropriate place for Internet governance.
Steve Forbes is Chairman and Editor-in-Chief of Forbes Media. His latest book, "Reviving America: How Repealing Obamacare, Replacing the Tax Code, and Reforming the Fed will Restore Hope and Prosperity" (McGraw-Hill Education, December 10, 2015).