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Urgent Need to Revisit Internet Governance (WCIT-12)

Developments over the past few months—and especially the revelations about the spying work of the NSA on friendly governments and their people and businesses—show how important it is to try and establish some high-level strategies relating to managing the governance of the internet. While companies like Google have been lobbying hard against WCIT-12—basically because they are opposed to any government interference in the internet—the reality is that, clearly without their knowledge, their own American government through the NSA is already directly interfering in their network.

So the whole notion of lobbying against government interference in the internet has now proved to be farcical. In itself this is a very sad story but it is clearly the new reality.

Companies such as Google, as well some of the others who voted against WCIT-12, were to a certain extent also blinded by their belief that WCIT-12 was all about incumbent (European) telcos receiving protection against the competition that they are getting from the internet media companies. While that is a very legitimate issue it was already clear before WCIT started that it would be a non-starter, as indeed was the case—it got no traction at the conference.

In a nutshell the United Nations’ telecommunications organisation ITU—the organiser of WCIT-12 held in December 2012 in Dubai—proposed using the International Telecommunication Regulations to address issues that have come to the fore now that the internet is beginning to mature. So far some of the issues at the core of the problem have been ignored by governments.

The key issues that the ITU placed on the agenda for WCIT-12 were:

  • The human right of, and need for, access to communications;
  • Security in the use of ICTs;
  • Protection of critical national resources;
  • International frameworks;
  • Charging and accounting, including taxation;
  • Interconnection and interoperability; Quality of Service;
  • Convergence.

We now have clear evidence that even in democratic countries government interference in the internet is a reality. So let us face that and use the broader internet community to ensure that this will not lead to a further undermining of the key (democratic) principles of the internet and the issues listed above; and, secondly, to avoid balkanisation, with governments taking individual actions which undoubtedly would lead to the undermining of the internet. So far the internet community has taken a rather relaxed attitude towards interference by individual countries such as, for instance, China, Iran and Syria, but the latest activities of the American government could see a whole range of countries now trying to develop local policies, and this could easily lead to a far more serious undermining of all of the principles for which the internet stands.

As mentioned previously governments do have the right and the obligation to protect their countries against terrorism and criminal activities. But the scale of the current spying activities in particular on its citizens, goes well beyond that and have all the hallmarks of previous CIA activities, which were clearly aimed at undermining foreign governments, politicians and political, union or community activists in other countries

It was the American government that was leading the charge against a WCIT-12 accord in Dubai. I believe this was basically for the wrong reasons—that is, the angst in relation to European telcos undermining American internet media interests. They totally overestimate the power of these telcos, which are significantly less than the political power the American incumbents have in their country.

This issue has blinded them to the real threat to the internet. The current situation shows that there are far more important things to worry about in securing the continuation of a free internet.

Most of the countries that followed America in their vote have now allegedly been spied upon by the American government, at a much larger scale than they had so far been aware off. The extent of this is something we may never know for sure. But it certainly is legitimate to question the scale and the personal nature of these activities, and many countries will not wait for American explanations and will develop policies what unfortunately could—intended or not—lead to an undermining of the internet.

The good outcome of WCIT-12 has been a broadening of the group of organisations discussing the future governance of the internet—and, to be honest, I have much more confidence in those other NGA organisations developing the guidelines than I have in the key governments involved (USA, China, Russia).

With a broader group of organisations now looking at the internet what is needed is for those NGAs involved in its various aspects to step up their activity and start taking a leadership role in safeguarding the internet for the future. So far we have been rather disappointed in their leadership qualities, but with a combined effort this can change. While the ITU received a great deal of flak for taking the lead on these sensitive issues to date it has been the only international (UN) organisation paying serious attention to them. It took the initiative, albeit under community pressure, to broaden discussion on the topic—at present there is no other organisation with the knowledge and the expertise to take that lead. There is no time to lose and there is an urgent need for the WCIT discussion to continue before it is too late and more damage is done to the internet by governments, terrorists or criminals.

By Paul Budde, Managing Director of Paul Budde Communication

Paul is also a contributor of the Paul Budde Communication blog located here.

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Thought provoking Dom Robinson  –  Jul 3, 2013 10:00 PM

Thank you Paul for a thought provoking point well made.
I like it when something stops me in my tracks and changes my perspective.

The only thing i would ask is that where you talk about the ITU as the only organisation with the knowledge and expertise do you not think that ISOC has that capability too?. The ITU predominantly takes a Telecoms network view with that knowledge and expertise (I feel)- where perhaps ISOC leads more on a ‘social responsibility first’ footing in expressing its knowledge and expertise…

It is but a detail in an otherwise ecellent and well written comment. Thank you.

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