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Does WCIT-12 Represent a Real Threat to Internet Freedom?

With the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-2012) being held from 3-14th December, some people are raising concerns over how much control governments will have over Internet censorship. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is a United Nations agency which is convening the conference in Dubai. The ITU implements the  International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs – available for download in a number of formats here), and the aim of the conference is to review and revise these ITRs.

The ITU summarizes the ITRs (signed by one hundred and seventy eight countries) as setting out general principles which facilitate the “free flow of information around the world, promoting affordable and equitable access for all and laying the foundation for ongoing innovation and market growth.” The ITRs “serve as the binding global treaty outlining the principles which govern the way international voice, data and video traffic is handled, and which lay the foundation for ongoing innovation and market growth.”

The ITRs were last negotiated in 1988, and according to the International Telecommunication Union, “there is broad consensus that the text now needs to be updated to reflect the dramatically different information and communication technology (ICT) landscape of the 21st century.” Considering how different that landscape now is, it’s clear that this update is long overdue. The problem is that many people view any attempt to change or regulate the Internet as a threat. It has even been suggested that WCIT-12 may herald “the end of the Internet” itself, or that the days of communicative freedom we have enjoyed are over.

The ITU has emphasized the importance of communication as a human right, but that has not stopped Google and others from raising the alarm about the potential outcome of this conference.  As part of the ITU’s background brief for the meeting, it quotes the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966 as part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The covenant declares that “a free, uncensored and unhindered press or other media is essential in any society to ensure freedom of opinion and expression,” also including that “the public also has a corresponding right to receive media output.” However, the ITU also mentions potential restrictions on these rights too: “In its Article 19, the treaty also makes clear that restrictions on communication can only be imposed according to law and if they are necessary in order to ‘respect the rights or reputations of others,’ or to protect national security, public order, or public health or morals.”

These potential restrictions are what has led Google to issue a call to arms, alerting internet users to the stakes of the meeting and inviting them to take action to keep the internet “free and open.” Google has called WCIT-2012 a “closed-door meeting” which some governments want to use “to increase censorship and regulate the Internet.”

Google knows understands the risks of government censorship.  In its bi-annual Transparency Report released last month, Google revealed that “requests from worldwide governments to remove Google search results and other services spiked more than 70% in the first half of 2012.  The report revealed that there were 1,791 requests to remove 17,746 pieces of content through June alone.”  The country that was second on the list was America, with two hundred and seventy three requests compared to one hundred and eighty seven during the last six months of 2011.  Only Turkey had a higher number: “just over 500 requests in the first half of 2012 to remove content from the internet, a 45% rise from the previous six months.” Google also reported an increase – by 15% – in government surveillance requests for user data.

Information Week has fanned the flames of fear, indicating that an ITU takeover alongside revisions to the ITRs could lead to a violation of the communications as a human right facet: if the UN extends the ITU’s purview to “include ISPs and the Internet-based exchange of information in general,” Larry Seltzer (BYTE Editorial Director) posits that it “would allow foreign government-owned Internet providers to charge extra for international traffic and allow for more price controls.” In other words, users may be forced on to more restricted domestic networks if they can’t afford to access more open international platforms.

Not everyone, however, thinks the UN is posing a big threat to Internet freedom. At Tech Crunch, Frederic Lardinois describes how the perception of threat is due mostly to the misunderstanding of the nature of the ITRs, and that the focus of the conference will be likely be issues such as taxation, interoperability and how to provide access to broadband in developing countries.

At Lawfare, national security expert Jack Goldsmith points out that the conference is unlikely to result in any major changes to the Internet and that it is more important for what it represents. After all, changes to the ITRs will be made only by consensus, meaning that every nation has the power of veto. Considering how differently nations such as the US and China regard the issue of Internet censorship, it’s very unlikely that they will be able to come to a consensus. Moreover, the ITU itself has no power to enforce the ITRs, meaning that they do not involve a loss of sovereign rights to the ITU or any other UN body.

These weak rules, however, do not render the conference completely useless. According to Jack Goldsmith, “the ITRs might enhance domestic regulatory power in those nations by providing political or legal cover or support for such regulation.” It is not the ITU itself that we have to fear, but the national governments who are likely to use WCIT-12 as cover for their own censorious aims.

Whether or not Google is right in their assertion remains to be seen; whatever the outcome of the conference, it is clear that interference with Internet freedom will not be taken lightly.

Jean-Loup Richet, Special Herdict Contributor


About the Author: Jean-Loup Richet

3 Comments to “Does WCIT-12 Represent a Real Threat to Internet Freedom?”

  1. IRWebmasters:

    I’ve been hearing a lot about the government wanting to increase internet censorship around campus but I honestly didn’t know anything about it. Thanks for the great article, I feel better actually knowing what’s going on. It’s a bit worrisome, no? You’d think international availability of internet would help relations, but there’s a chance that we’ll be restricted to domestic networks only? Yikes.

  2. Robert:

    Internet freedom cannot be measured with some simple law of laws. The internet of course in my opinion should be limited in itself to people not showing others how to make bombs etc, but at the same time isnt that what society wants? They want a platform for free information.

  3. who discovered team:

    Under the theme of “ONE Vision for a Global Digital Society”, the World Congress on Information Technology is seizing the opportunity to work directly with the ICT industry and its stakeholders to forge ahead on some of the world’s most urgent challenges and create a “Global Digital Society Action Plan” that will not only shape the future of the sector, but also the future of humanity.