The Fight for a Free and Open Internet
Paula J. Hane
Posted On December 3, 2012
Vinton Cerf is worried. Cerf is credited with helping to develop the protocols and structure of the internet and the first commercial email system. Now he fears forces are at work that threaten to undermine the free and open nature of the net. He notes that, “The internet has become one of the motors of the 21st century economy, allowing all of us to reach a global audience at a click of a mouse and creating hundreds of thousands of businesses and millions of jobs.” But he cautioned, “Today, this free and open net is under threat. Some 42 countries filter and censor content out of the 72 studied by the Open Net Initiative (ONI). This doesn’t even count serial offenders such as North Korea and Cuba. Over the past 2 years, Freedom House says governments have enacted 19 new laws threatening online free expression.”
Cerf and many others worry that a meeting that starts today (Dec. 3, 2012, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates) could prove problematic. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is bringing together regulators from around the world to renegotiate a decades-old communications treaty. “Some of these governments are trying to use a closed-door meeting of The International Telecommunication Union … to further their repressive agendas,” says Cerf. The ITU is the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies—ICTs. It stated mission is to allocate global radio spectrum and satellite orbits, develop the technical standards that ensure networks and technologies seamlessly interconnect, and strive to improve access to ICTs to underserved communities worldwide.
But this current World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT; Dec. 3-14, 2012) is reportedly marred by a lack of transparency. Access to preparatory reports, as well as proposed modifications to the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs) treaty, is limited to ITU member states and a few other privileged parties. The conference and proposals are confidential. This leaves civil society groups and the public in general, in the dark—and worried about the expanded control that some governments are reportedly seeking over the internet exchange of information.
Cerf says that, “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 International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs).”
Other proposals would require services such as YouTube, Facebook, and Skype to pay new tolls in order to reach people across borders. This could limit access to information—particularly in emerging markets.
Google Launches Campaign Against Proposals
Cerf is chief internet evangelist at Google. “At Google, we see and feel the dangers of the government-led net crackdown," he says. "We operate in about 150 countries around the globe. Our services—including Search, YouTube and Blogger, to Gmail and Maps—have been blocked at some point, temporarily or permanently, in more than 30 different countries.”
So Google, fearing internet censorship, has set up a website to promote its message and ask people to pledge their support. The “Take Action” website posits that, “A free and open world depends on a free and open internet.” Governments alone should not determine the future of the internet—thus, the ITU is the wrong place to make decisions about the future of the internet. The billions of people around the globe that use the internet, and the experts that build and maintain it, should be included.
It’s not just Google that is objecting to the ITU’s actions. Cerf says more than 1,000 organizations from more than 160 countries have raised concerns about the closed-door meeting in Dubai. Other large internet companies, open internet advocacy groups, the European Union, and the U.S. government oppose any internet governance role for the ITU.
Calls for Openness
For a more detailed discussion calling for openness in the treaty negotiations, read the paper presented at the North American Network Operators’ Group 55th Meeting (NANOG 55) on June 5, 2012, in Vancouver, Canada. Both authors are policy councils at Google but the paper was “written in the authors’ personal and academic capacities and is not intended to reflect the official views of Google.”
The authors offer a frank assessment of what is happening with the ITU and make several helpful suggestions.
The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is renegotiating its treaty with the 193 countries of the world, and it hopes to expand from the telecommunications arena into the Internet. However, there’s one major problem with this shift in mandate: The ITU is a closed organization and has been for nearly 150 years. The ITU’s rules and processes may have worked for the old state-run telecom monopolies, but they cannot work in regulating the Internet, where standards have been developed in an open manner since its inception. Thus, in order to gain legitimacy with the Internet community, the ITU will need to (1) open its processes for review and comment by civil society, academics, the private sector, and the public; (2) make its TIES database freely and publicly accessible for review and comment; and (3) allow multistakeholder participation in developing standards and protocols, particularly where other groups (like the IETF) are actively developing standards.
Citation: Patrick Ryan and Jacob Glick, The ITU Treaty Negotiations: A Call for Openness and Participation, NANOG 55 (June 2012), available on SSRN at
The public interest group Access Now has launched a petition that also asks for openness and transparency. It is addressed to the ITU and its member states, and requests the following:
The internet belongs to all of us—not to governments, and certainly not to the ITU. We call upon you to release your preparatory documents; recognize the role of the user, and reject any proposals that might centralize control of the internet.
Update posted by the ITU 12-6-12
A full English transcript derived from the simultaneous captioning in the meeting rooms is available for all Plenary and Committee 5 sessions at:www.itu.int/en/wcit-12/Pages/captioning.aspx.
Live and archived multilingual webcasts of the WCIT-12 opening ceremony, opening press conference and all meetings of the conference Plenary and Committee 5 over the coming two weeks are available at: www.itu.int/en/wcit-12/Pages/webcast.aspx
ITU is hosting a daily media briefing with the ITU Secretary-General and other key officials recapping each day’s discussions. These briefings will take place at 18:00 local Dubai time, accessible on any computer via the Adobe Connect platform at: http://itu.adobeconnect.com/wcit2012/
Speeches, daily meeting schedules and other information can be found on the main WCIT-12 Newsroom at: www.itu.int/en/wcit-12/Pages/newsroom.aspx
A FAQ, a comprehensive set of Background Briefs covering the main discussion topics and a WCIT Myth Buster presentation can be found at:www.itu.int/en/wcit-12/Pages/WCIT-backgroundbriefs.aspx
View videos from the meeting and download broadcast quality video footage at: www.itu.int/en/newsroom/Pages/videos.aspx
Photos from the meeting can be downloaded at: www.flickr.com/photos/itupictures/sets/72157632073685626/
The main conference preparatory documents can be found at: www.itu.int/en/wcit-12/Pages/documents.aspx
The current ITRs can be found at: www.itu.int/oth/T3F01000001