Something WCIT this way comes

Should we worry that the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is “taking over” the Internet? Some say we should worry that the internet industry – with its economic muscle, technical edge and freedom of movement in a free market – is taking over telecommunications.

There’s plenty of opposition to the idea that the ITU should put more of the internet under the its International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) when the 24 year-old guidelines are updated in Dubai for the online age at December’s World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT).

Critics of WCIT fear it will hand control of the internet to the UN and more powers to authoritarian states that censor and repress their citizens. Certainly governments have a duty to protect human rights when making policy decisions for the Internet and the ITU is not the right forum to develop policies and standards that could affect online freedom of expression.

Unasked: what will unbridled private sector management of the internet’s public space will mean for free expression on the internet if no-one ‘controls’ it?

Fadi Chehadé 2012

ICANN CEO Fadi Chehadé, at WCIT 2012: itupictures / Wikimedia Commons

The giant online service providers – Google, Yahoo, Amazon and the ones to come – are already able to independently set more and more of the terms and conditions under which the ITU and its members operate without reference to it. 

Calling themselves ‘information services’ rather than ‘telecoms providers’, the internet giants are more willing to vet the messages they carry, even when not obliged to.

In the case of Innocence of Muslims, the White House, which found the video “reprehensible and disgusting,” asked if it breached YouTube’s terms of service, thereby justifying a global ban. Google replied that it didn’t. But Google voluntarily restricted access to the video in Egypt and Libya anyway, to widespread criticism.

It recalled US senator Joe Lieberman’s notorious 2010 complaint to Amazon about the WikiLeaks files on its servers. Amazon obliged and blocked them, but had to censor voluntarily. A US court order to achieve the same result would not have survived a First Amendment legal challenge.

“The fact that the same effect was sought to be achieved through a public statement by an official, executed by voluntary action of a private company, suggests a deep vulnerability of the checks imposed by the First Amendment in the context of a public sphere built entirely of privately-owned infrastructure” noted Yoachai Benkler of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Developing countries and the BRICs look to the ITU to counter US pre-eminence, but have generally failed to assert governmental control over global Internet governance so far. Their business communities do not routinely back their arguments and most of their internet activists prefer de-nationalised, multi-stakeholder governance anyway.

Most standards are set by device, software and application providers over whom the ITU has little leverage. Technical standards are set by a diverse set of private, usually voluntary associations. It is doubtful that the ITRs can even be practically applied to the internet.

In any case, ITRs are essentially gentlemen’s agreements. There’s no ITU power to enforce them. Many national governments, including some democracies, want to border off national Internet spaces, but they don’t need the ITRs to do this. Every country has its own rules on interconnection, privacy, consumer protection and can apply World Trade Organisation rules on trade in services like cross-border communication via the internet.

In fact it is hard to see how the ITRs could authorise anything that national governments couldn’t already do, says professor Milton Mueller of Syracuse University.

“That’s why Bradley Manning is in jail and Wikileaks is persecuted; that’s why China constructed the Great Firewall; that’s why South Korea censors Internet access to North Korea and vice versa; that’s why France prosecuted Yahoo for displaying Nazi memorabilia.” Internet freedoms need promoting at WCIT, says Mueller, but civil society should not blow the ITU’s ITRs out of proportion.

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