The ITU is a United Nations agency tasked with promoting communication and information technologies. Its meeting will involve possible revisions to the International Telecommunications Regulations treaty. Untouched since 1988, the document emphasizes the technological challenges of its day, such as the handling of phone traffic. Times have changed, and some countries have reportedly advocated that the ITU purview expand to include ISPs and the Internet-based exchange of information in general.
If a new treaty with such provisions is passed, it could dramatically realign the current power structure around Internet standards and operations. Currently, non-profit entities such as ICANN handle these duties. By proxy, this gives the United States influence over the Internet's trajectory; ICANN, for example, ultimately reports to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Google isn't the only party concerned about an ITU takeover. BYTE editorial director Larry Seltzer wrote in May that the current governance bodies are "more open and transparent than the ITU, which only allows participation by governments." He noted that an ITU-governed Internet could mean greater UN control over cybersecurity, data privacy and the IP addressing system. He also said "foreign government-owned Internet providers [could] charge extra for international traffic and allow more price controls."
Many of these points are emphasized in the "Take Action" website Google set up to promote its message. The site essentially establishes a timeline to explain the company's fears. One bullet point focuses on the past, reminding visitors that many governments are actively censoring Web results and enacting laws that threaten online expression. Another looks to the near future, warning that "some of these governments are trying to use a closed-door meeting in December to regulate the Internet." Looking further ahead, the site predicts that regulatory shifts could allow governments to cut off Internet access. Google also foresees that users of YouTube, Facebook, Skype and similar services might have to pay tolls before transferring information across borders.
The site eschews specific information, presenting the company's view via images, videos, and short, sound bite-friendly statements. Even so, its concerns are more than speculation. Dr. Hamadoun Toure, the ITU's secretary general, stated, for example, that infrastructure costs will demand private participation and new pricing considerations -- an argument that sparked concerns about Web tolls. Other fears have been traced to treaty revision proposals submitted to the ITU. Few of these documents have been made public, but Wcitleaks.org, a site run by researchers at George Mason University, leaked Russia's call for member states to be given equal rights to manage the Internet. If such a call were fulfilled, individual countries could be much freer to restrict online free speech and censor Internet services, among other things.
Even so, some have doubted whether the UN really poses a threat. For one thing, changes require a consensus among ITU members, which is unlikely on this topic. For another, Congress has had its eye on the issue of Internet regulation for months; if the ITU wants to reallocate power, it will have to do so in the face of formidable political opposition.
Regardless of the actual risk, Google's opposition can be seen as a positive if it encourages people to take a more active role in the evolution of cyber laws. In this way, the company's effort evokes the SOPA and PIPA controversies. Many of the players and specific implications are different, but the push for participation from the online collective is the same. To this end, Google's "Take Action" site includes a petition through which users can support the idea that, "The billions of people around the globe who use the Internet should have a voice."
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