December’s meeting of the UN World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai is “causing alarm” amongst freedom of expression advocates, as authoritarian regimes mobilize to push through new curbs on internet freedom.
“The future of the internet is at stake,” says Vint Cerf, Google’s “chief internet evangelist.” “Some countries are looking for more national control over the internet. Not surprisingly, authoritarian countries are behind this, led by China and Russia.”
“Proponents of a free web fear broad clauses concerning national sovereignty and security could be used as smokescreen for legitimizing censorship, clandestine monitoring and the blocking of websites,” the FT’s Daniel Thomas, Richard Waters and James Fontanella-Khan report:
Technically, the conference focuses on international agreements governing telecommunications, but some proposals stretch further than many want into internet governance. The battle is already being fought behind meeting room doors at the International Telecommunication Union, an agency of the UN. Western nations – such as the US and the EU – in particular do not want to give the ITU extra authority that could indirectly benefit authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, eastern Europe and Asia. They are accused of seeing an opportunity to enhance their ability to control the web and crack down on political dissidents.
“If new governance rules had been set to tighten the control of the web a few years ago we would have not had an Arab spring,” says a senior EU diplomat. “The internet must be left free and untouched, the less we tinker with it the better.”
Autocratic regimes aren’t the only threat.
The European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association has proposed “a fee system for the providers to pay other networks fees to route content, charge content operators a delivery fee and develop a two tiered system for Internet traffic [which] could threaten an open Internet by allowing Internet service providers to prioritize certain traffic,” according to a recent report cited by the Center for International Media Assistance.
Activists will be paying close attention to the phrasing and nuances of any regulations drafted in Dubai.
“Some proposals published by the ITU and released to member states are seen as creating a benign environment for state intervention in content and access. Because of the vague language, that could mean blocking anything from spam to political material perceived as illegal,” the FT reports.
“Many of the proposals are well-intentioned but would also give legitimacy for all sorts of suppression of free speech,” says Google’s Cerf:
The Internet Society, a non-profit group, says that seemingly technical proposals over the naming, numbering and allocation of addresses to web sites could be abused and “impose detrimental burdens” on freedom and openness…….
In truth, guidelines from Dubai may make little real difference in the most authoritarian regimes. States such as Iran and North Korea censor or ban the internet. This month, the list of taboo words in China – that trigger a clampdown on web pages – was updated to include references to Gu Kailai, who was the wife of Bo Xilai, until recently one of China’s most senior officials. She was given a suspended death sentence for murder.
The International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy invites you to a panel discussion on Liberation Technology: Instruments of Freedom or Tools of Repression? featuring Daniel Calingaert, Rebecca MacKinnon, Xiao Qiang, Rafal Rohozinski, Larry Diamond, and Marc F. Plattner to celebrate the publication of Liberation Technology: Social Media and the Struggle for Democracy, a Journal of Democracy book edited by Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner, published in July 2012 by the Johns Hopkins University Press.
Tuesday, September 11, 2012
4:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m.
(light reception to follow)
1025 F Street NW, Suite 800, Washington, DC 20004
RSVP (acceptances only) with name and affiliation by Friday, September 7
National Endowment for Democracy
1025 F. Street, N.W., Suite 800, Washington, D.C.
Daniel Calingaert is vice president for policy and planning at Freedom House, which receives funding from the State Department, Google, and other sources to promote Internet freedom. He also teaches in Georgetown University’s M.A. Program in Democracy and Governance and at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
Rebecca MacKinnon is a Bernard L. Schwartz Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. She is cofounder of Global Voices Online (www.globalvoicesonline.org), a global citizen-media network. Her first book, Consent of the Networked, was published in January 2012 by Basic Books.
Xiao Qiang is adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Journalism of the University of California-Berkeley, principal investigator at CounterPower Lab, and founder and chief editor of China Digital Times. He has published numerous articles on China, human rights, and Internet politics in the International Herald Tribune, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, Los Angeles Times, South China Morning Post and other major publications.
Rafal Rohozinski is a principal with the SecDev Group and former director of the Advanced Network Research Group of the Cambridge Security Programme. He is a cofounder of the OpenNet Initiative and the Information Warfare Monitor. His most recent book is Ghost in the Machine: The Battle for the Future of Cyberspace (coauthored with Ronald Deibert).
Larry Diamond is coeditor of the Journal of Democracy and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, where he directs the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. His most recent book is The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World.
Marc F. Plattner is coeditor of the Journal of Democracy, vice-president for research and studies at the National Endowment for Democracy, and co-chair of the research council of the International Forum for Democratic Studies. His latest book is Democracy without Borders? Global Challenges to Liberal Democracy.