Google and Mozilla have warned that proposed changes to international telecommunications rules, currently being discussed in Dubai under the auspices of the U.N.'s International Telecommunications Union, present a threat to Internet freedom.
"The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is convening a conference from December 3-14 to revise a decades-old treaty, in which only governments have a vote," said Vint Cerf, VP and chief Internet evangelist at Google and co-creator of the Internet's TCP/IP protocol, in a blog post on Sunday. "Some proposals could allow governments to justify the censorship of legitimate speech, or even cut off Internet access in their countries."
The lack of input from non-governmental organizations and Internet users is a widely cited concern among those critical of the ITU's process. In a blog post on Sunday, Mozilla's chief counsel, Harvey Anderson, condemned the closed-door nature of the ITU discussions. "Obscurity has cloaked the upcoming meeting, much of the process leading up to it, and most of the preparatory documents," he said. "The process appears to cater to only the most powerful interests."
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Anderson argues that closed, government-directed treaty discussions are inconsistent with the Internet's tradition of multi-stakeholder governance.
Sounding exasperated with what he suggested was unwarranted demonization of the ITU, Gary Fowlie, head of ITU liaison Office to the United Nations, insisted in a phone interview that his organization's effort to revise outdated telecom rules is not an attempt to change the way the Internet is governed.
"This whole idea there would be some kind of restriction on freedom of expression, it just doesn't fly with what the ITU has stood for," he said, stressing that as a U.N. entity, the ITU is bound to uphold Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees the right to free expression through any media.
The ITU's concerns, Fowlie said, have to do with issues like affordable Internet access, high roaming fees and the security of telecommunications systems. Asked whether security could co-exist with the ability to express oneself freely without fear of government retaliation, he said, "That's a very challenging balance for many but it's not something that hasn't been accomplished in the past.
"For us, at the highest level, the Internet is the most powerful tool for economic growth, social inclusion and environmental sustainability," he said. "Nobody wants to compromise that."
But according to the Center for Democracy and Technology, some of the ITU proposals would compromise expectations like privacy. A proposed network data inspection standard, the group says, fails to adequately address possible privacy implications. A proposal from the European Telecommunications Network Operators, the group says, would undermine network neutrality with a "pay for priority" model and replace the largely settlement-free network peering model with a sender-pays model.
In comments posted to the ITU website, CDT policy analyst Ellery Roberts Biddle condemns the proposed changes. "Through extending the regulatory framework of the ITRs to the Internet, the ITU Member States will mitigate the Internet's growth and inhibit the Internet's impact on economies and societies around the globe," she asserts.