Next month, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) will be holding its conference in Dubai to decide the fate of the Internet. The suggested changes to the ITU’s Internet rules have been shrouded in secrecy, but we know of a number of concerning proposals that could fundamentally change the way the Internet works. Some governments are attempting to use security as an excuse to reduce Internet freedom and legitimize undemocratic practices like censorship and surveillance, while other proposals threaten the global economy and widen the digital divide.
Will the ITU Give a Nod to Transparency?
The Internet freedom community’s concerns have only been exacerbated by the fact that the public hasn’t been given a say, and isn’t even being told what going on. Our friends over at the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) recently attended a Civil Society Briefing hosted by the ITU Secretariat that aimed to bring some much-needed transparency to secretive negotiations.
However according to the CDT, the briefing did little to improve the situation as “concrete answers to these questions were few and far between”. The ITU is putting the responsibility on member states to release the proposals to its citizens. As the CDT points out, “[w]hile this is fine and good for countries with a healthy civil sector and a commitment to multistakeholder governance, it is cold comfort to civil society in much of the world, where governments at best ignore their input and at worst target and harass them”.
The ITU’s proposals look set to dramatically increase its regulatory power, which is both unnecessary and dangerous. As the CDT notes, expert government, non-government, and private organizations already exist to deal with different Internet issues like cybercrime, domain names, and technical standards according to their expertise. To have the ITU step in now and reassert its authority makes little sense, and would undercut these existing multi-stakeholder efforts.
The cybersecurity proposals could allow governments to use security as an excuse to reduce Internet freedom, legitimizing undemocratic practices like censorship and surveillance. The CDT has suggested that the proposals constitute a major expansion of the ITU’s reach, and do not reflect the complexity of security issues. Slow-moving treaty-based bodies like the ITU are not best suited to respond to rapidly changing security threats.
In addition, the CDT warns that “[b]urdensome regulation could limit the Internet’s performance, reach, and availability”, and we know that some of these proposals will have a negative impact on economic development, particularly in developing countries. The massive growth and innovation of the Internet was made possible because of, not in spite of, the lack of restrictive regulations from organizations like the ITU.
The Internet has been able to grow because of a policy framework that promotes competition, global voluntary standards, and some basic agreements between private companies. This framework has been developed through transparency and openness, and participation from a full range of stakeholders. By contrast the ITU’s approach has been closed and secretive and will put put governments in control, making the rules binding rather than voluntary. This could be damaging to the global economy, and to Internet freedom.
The CDT reported some discussion at the Briefing about whether civil society groups and the general public would be able to participate in the negotiations, but the details are hard to pin down. It seems like the nod the ITU has made towards transparency may be just that: a half-step intended to placate us. We need to call on our governments now to make the full ITU proposals publicly available, and to give us a voice in the negotiation process.
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