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December 4, 2012

Internet Treaty Talks Begin Amid Fears of Censorship

The International Telecommunication Union Internet treaty talks began in Dubai Dec. 3 amid fears some members will push for the authority to control the flow of information on the Web.

Government regulators from 193 countries are taking part in the World Conference on International Telecommunications (Wcit) hosted by the ITU, a United Nations organization that oversees international communication policy.

Google has said the proposed changes to the treaty threaten freedom of speech. The search engine has launched a campaign imploring its users to “support a free and open Internet” while the European Union has declared the ITU is not the suitable organization to have “regulatory authority” of the Internet.

Terry Kramer, the U.S. ambassador to Wcit, has also expressed concern.

The ITU, however, maintains changes to the treaty are not about censorship, but about changing infrastructure to grant as many people as possible access to the Internet.

One item on the agenda is the review of proposals to restore the International Telecommunications Regulations treaty, which hasn’t been updated since 1988. Some of the possible modifications would hand the ITU the muscle to control the flow of information, which would then give the organization the power to censor speech or obstruct the release of public information.

Kramer, late last week, described a number of proposals for the treaty as “alarming.”

“There have been active recommendations that there be an invasive approach of governments in managing the internet, in managing the content that goes via the Internet, what people are looking at, what they’re saying, et cetera,” he said during an on-the-record briefing.

“These fundamentally violate everything that we believe in in terms of democracy and opportunities for individuals, and we’re going to vigorously oppose any proposals of that nature.”

Kramer said a number of the proposed changes would force Internet providers to pay to have traffic delivered abroad.

“If you can think about the implications of this, today much of what we get via the Internet is free,” he said. “In these models, there would now be a paid model. And many of the organizations that send content are non-profit organizations, they’re universities that provide free online courses, they’re organizations like the Khan Academy that provide YouTube clips for free online education for young people.”

He said the U.S. would not support changes that would enforce payment for Internet traffic.

Kramer said better cyber security is necessary to protect users from malware and hackers and while many of the proposed treaty changes touch on that, they also “open the door for content censorship, for routing of traffic, and the ability of governments to control what’s happening on those networks.”

Google has expressed similar concerns.

“Only governments have a voice at the ITU,” Google said. “This includes governments that do not support a free and open Internet. Engineers, companies, and people that build and use the Web have no vote. The ITU is also secretive. The treaty conference and proposals are confidential.”

Kramer has said the ITU is not the problem. Rather, it is some of the member nations.

“At the end of the day, the ITU is reflecting positions that different member nations are taking. And so some of the proposals, candidly, that have come out of the nondemocratic nations, to me is the most worrisome issue.”

Kramer described Canada, Central and South America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and some Asian countries such as Japan as “good partners” in opposing questionable treaty changes.

Russia, however, has proposed IPN networks be placed under UN control, a move the U.S. and its partners oppose.

“Out of all the proposals that have come in, the Russian one candidly is the most shocking and most disappointing in terms of achieving the success that we are seeking globally,” he said. “It would basically move to governments the right to route traffic, to review content, and say that’s all a completely national matter — an extremely important precedent it would set for opening the doors, again, to more censorship.”

The Russian proposal, which is focused on Internet governance, is unlikely to get far, however, if Dr. Hamadoun Toure, secretary-general of the UN’s International Telecommunications Union, has his way.

Toure has said the ITU will not focus on Internet governance at the conference.

Other countries proposing the “alarming” changes Kramer referred to are some African countries, some Arab states and India.