A United Nations body will meet next week with the hopes of figuring out a new way to regulate and control the Internet. The International Telecommunications Union meeting will take place in Dubai, with representatives from nearly 200 countries participating. On the agenda are proposed changes to the International Telecommunications Regulation treaty, signed in 1988 to ensure that the Internet would remain unregulated by government bodies and be a bastion for free speech and innovation. The proposed changes aim to end the current freedoms that Internet users around the world enjoy, giving power to governments to shutdown speech they deem inappropriate.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the main force behind the proposed changes are countries that have a tendency to shutdown dissident speech. China, Russia and Iran top the list, and also include many developing countries with less than democratic governments. Their argument goes that as the Internet becomes more of a global product than an American one, it should be governed by world forces and not subject to the whims and biases of the Americans, their western allies, and frankly, capitalism and democracy. They hope to achieve their goals by wresting control of the Internet away from the engineers and computer scientists who populate the Internet’s governing body, ICANN, and give more control to governments and unelected officials who can help to rewrite the rules governing how the Internet operates.
One of the proposed changes to the treaty involves regulating certain types of content on the Internet. Under some proposed language found in UN documents, ICANN would be forced to cooperate with governments to block websites or content from appearing in their country. It reads:
“In cases where international telecommunication services are used for the purpose of interfering in the internal affairs or undermining the sovereignty, national security, territorial integrity and public safety of other states, or to divulge information of a sensitive nature.”
The oft-used phrase of “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is useful here, as crackdowns on speech in authoritarian states are nothing new. This provision would give legal authority to governments to block sites like Twitter, Facebook or other local blogs, and media organizations that might be less than friendly to dictators and tyrants, websites which have a history of helping to organize opposition groups.
Another measure in the proposed changes hopes to incentivize websites to voluntarily cutoff content from developing countries—it does this through a “sender pays” rule. Under this arrangement, websites would have to pay a locality (either a government or a local network provider) fee for downloads originating in that country. For example, if a user in Pakistan wanted to access the Huffington Post, then the Huffington Post would be pay a fee on behalf of that user. As capturing the attention of a user in Pakistan may not be as valuable as capturing a user in the United States, the Huffington Post may just decide to block content to Pakistan, thus barring that Pakistani citizen from what may be valuable news and information.
In the past two years alone, access to the Internet has helped in the organization and dissemination of information to bring about the Arab Spring, bringing down regimes in Libya, Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt, and sparking protests in countless other countries. As we speak, the Internet has become a battlefield in Syria, with both the Free Syrian Army and Assad’s regime using the Internet to propagate information. It’s no wonder that enemies of freedom and expression would rather the Internet not be there. The Internet has most recently been used as a platform in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with both sides taking to Twitter to inform the public of events, and even spar with one another on occasion.
Allowing the UN to regulate the Internet to appease the whims of authoritarian rulers would be akin to the West shutting down Radio Free Europe to appease the Soviets. The Internet has brought the world a free and open platform to disseminate, learn and discuss ideas; to organize minority groups that are otherwise shut out of political discussions; and engaged the world to show what liberty and freedom looks like. Allowing the Internet to be regulated by any government is a threat to democracy and the right to free speech that the West should discourage.
Zack Christenson is a digital tech writer and research fellow for the American Consumer Institute. For more information, visit www.theamericanconsumer.org.