A United Nations conference is set to debate whether the international body should play a larger role in governing the internet, stirring criticism from technology companies and rights groups who say the proposal holds potentially dire implications.
The World Conference on International Telecommunications is set to begin Monday in the United Arab Emirates, a country that has been criticized for restricting online dissent and where internet users often encounter “surf safely” warnings upon visiting government-blocked websites.
For the first time in nearly a quarter-century, the summit will update a treaty governing how the world’s telecommunications infrastructure connects people in 178 signatory countries. Another key item on the agenda is a proposal that would change the way internet users pay for content online.
A long-standing campaign by member countries of the International Telecommunications Union, the group affiliated with the UN that's organizing the summit, to play a larger role in managing how the internet runs has overshadowed other aspects of the event.
At the meeting next week, a group of countries including Russia are reportedly planning to push for the UN body to take over governance duties from the California-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a non-profit organization that oversees internet naming.
That proposal has garnered sometimes colourful criticism from the collection of stakeholders who have traditionally helped govern the internet, as well as from experts or activists concerned with internet freedom.
Vint Cerf, a vice-president at Google who helped design the architecture of the internet, described the campaign by ITU members in a recent interview with Reuters as “evidence that this breed of dinosaurs, with their pea-sized brains, hasn't figured out that they are dead yet because the signal hasn't travelled up their long necks."
During a speech in Ottawa last May, the organization's secretary general Hamadoun Toure dismissed notions that the ITU might take over the internet, and said he expects “a light-touch regulatory approach to emerge” as his organization updates its technical standards framework for the first time since the advent of the web.
But critics of the ITU say it’s too closed-off to the public so that civil society groups would have little say on important decisions, or that an inter-governmental agency is too slow to keep up with the fast pace at which the internet moves.
Others believe the ITU as an internet regulator would help legitimize governments who are moving to control web access and restrict what users can say online.
Andy Sellars, a lawyer with the Digital Media Law Project at Harvard University, said he worries that regulating the online world through the UN group “could mean more aggressive, centralized control of the internet” and more restrictions on free speech, which together would “seriously change what we understand the internet to be.”
Observers say it’s unlikely the ITU campaign will succeed in the short-term because there is too much opposition, including from the United States and the European Union.
But Ron Deibert, a cybersecurity expert and director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, says the recurring push at the ITU to wield more control over the web is part of a bigger trend “towards greater state control of cyberspace and an older internationally governed system of telecommunications.”
He points to the backdrop for the conference — and a long list of recent cases in which people in the Gulf region and elsewhere have been jailed for posting messages on social media — as evidence.
Last month in Iran, four people were arrested for posting messages on Facebook that were deemed insulting to officials. Four Kuwaitis were jailed for purportedly using Twitter to criticize the country’s ruler earlier in November. And in the most publicized recent case, two women in Mumbai were arrested for posting and “liking” a comment on Facebook admonishing supporters of late nationalist Hindu politician Bal Thackeray.
Rebecca MacKinnon, an internet censorship researcher at the New America Foundation, says it’s becoming easier for many governments to censor or jail people for what they say online because new laws are being enacted that “are making it harder and harder for citizens to have public conversations online about politics without repercussions,” particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring, she said.
"In a lot of countries they didn't really have laws dealing with online speech before and didn't clarify what was illegal, so a number of governments are sort of rushing to pass more laws that make more things illegal online," she said.
The United Arab Emirates, for example, took a tougher stance against online dissent earlier this month when it passed a new law that means anyone can be imprisoned for using the web to criticize the oil-rich Gulf country’s rulers or its institutions.
Deibert says some of the new laws are aimed at “downloading policing responsibilities onto the private sector,” forcing technology companies or internet service providers to report forbidden behaviour by users.
He also suggests there's a growing demand for online surveillance tools – some of which are made by Western companies – which can make it easier for authorities in autocratic countries like the UAE or democracies such as Canada to track what’s being said on the web and to take action as their laws allow.
In the case of Russia, which is reportedly spearheading the push to make the ITU an internet regulator, it launched a beefed-up online surveillance system on Nov. 1. According to an investigation by the CitizenLab and two other rights groups, and reported by Wired magazine, the new system could be running on software from a Canadian firm.