Upcoming UN summit could change web freedom forever

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An upcoming UN summit on international telecommunications could see wholesale changes in a global treaty that would diminish the internet’s role in economic growth and restrict the free flow of information.

That’s if a group of dozens of countries reportedly engaged in secret meetings ahead of the summit have their way.

The US delegation attending the World Conference on International Telecommunications to be held in Dubai in December has vowed to block any proposals from Russia and other countries that they believe threaten the internet’s current governing structure or that give tacit approval to online censorship.

There is a certain degree of irony in decision, given that it’s had to overturn controversial online censorship bills such as SOPA, PIPA and ACTA in recent months.

The fact that Russia is singled out as one of the countries isn’t all that surprising given the headache social media gave the country during its 2011 elections. At the time there was also suspicion that a number of monitoring sites were deliberately hacked during last year’s contested election. Mass demonstrations, organised primarily over Facebook and LiveJournal, followed. The country also asked social networking sites to censor protester content during this period.

The country has also proposed language that requires UN member states to ensure the public has unrestricted access and use of international telecommunication services “except in cases where international telecommunication services are used for the purpose of interfering in the internal affairs or undermining the sovereignty, national security, territorial integrity and public safety of other states, or to divulge information of a sensitive nature”. That’s according to a 3 May UN document that details the various proposals for amending the treaty.

That wording of that proposal means that the treaty could easily be used to justify repressing political opposition. It would also appear to contravene Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says people shall have the right to access information “through any media and regardless of frontiers”.

If enough countries sign on to Russia’s proposal version of the treaty, it could be evidence that the worrying “authoritarian trends” that internet pioneer Vint Cerf spoke about in 2011 are reaching the multi-national level.

Unlike the UN Security Council, the US does not have powers of veto in the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which oversees the treaty.

Instead the ITU works on a consensus basis, meaning that proposals can only be stopped if enough countries voice their objection.

“It is important that when we have values, as we do in the area of free speech and the free flow of information, that we do everything that we can to articulate and sustain those values,” Philip Verveer, deputy assistant secretary of state and US co-ordinator for international communications and information policy, said in an interview.

The fact that the debates around the proposals have been held behind closed doors has been criticised by public interest groups who say it undermines the development of sound public policy.

The negotiations have also sparked rumours that the UN and the ITU are plotting to take control of the internet from the loose coalition of nongovernmental organisations that establishes internet policies, standards and rules, they said. The ITU’s secretary-general, Hamadoun Toure, has called the takeover rumour “ridiculous”.

Adding fuel to the rumour fires is the fact that Toure and Russian president Vladimir Putin have a close relationship.

Their fear is that Putin, who long has pushed for centralised control of the internet, will use his allegedly close ties to Toure to accomplish that goal. Toure, a native of Mali, received advanced degrees in electronics and telecommunications from universities in Moscow and Leningrad.

“Is this relationship a concern?” asked Republican representative Greg Walden, the subcommittee’s chair. “What steps are we taking to be able to counterbalance that relationship?”

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