An upcoming UN-organized conference on global communications aims to hammer out a treaty to safeguard "the free flow of information around the world.” Google is fighting back, saying the treaty threatens the “free and open Internet.”
Representatives from UN member-states will gather in Dubai from December 3 through 14 with the explicit aim of working out a new universal information and communication treaty that would regulate the Internet.
The conference, organized by the UN’s International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) has reignited a fierce debate over who should control the Web.
Google has remained unequivocal in its stance that the closed-door meeting a power grab aimed at ending public control of the Internet and strangling free speech:
“A free and open world depends on a free and open Internet. Governments alone, working behind closed doors, should not direct its future. The billions of people around the globe who use the Internet should have a voice,” Google said on its ‘Take Action’ advocacy website.
Google, which has consistently taken a self-regulatory approach to the Internet, called the Dubai conference the “wrong place" to make decisions on the future of the Internet.
The Internet giant argued that the 42 countries set to decide the future of the Net have already moved to censor it, and that the number of regulations is only growing.
"Some proposals could permit governments to censor legitimate speech – or even allow them to cut off Internet access,” Take Action explained. "Other proposals would require services like YouTube, Facebook and Skype to pay new tolls in order to reach people across borders. This could limit access to information – particularly in emerging markets."
ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Toure attempted to allay fears by vowing that any decisions made at the conference would have to pass in a unanimous vote.
Toure previously vowed that a majority vote on Internet-related issues would not be enough to establish a universal rule set. "Whatever one single country does not accept will not pass,” he told the BBC in July.
Supporters of a new treaty say that the growth of Web and the subsequent worldwide explosion of the mobile phone market have antiquated the initial Internet treaty signed in 1998.
The ITU argues that a new treaty would not only bolster the free flow of information, but promote affordable and equitable access for all and lay the foundation for ongoing innovation and market growth.
With the elimination of revenue once generated from international landline calls, governments in the developing world have been starved of the necessary funds “to bring down the cost of Internet connectivity in developing countries,” Secretary-General Toure said in June.
“The current international regulatory framework is simply not equipped to deal with these challenges – challenges which will affect the development of a fully-inclusive information society over the next decade; a society that ensures all the world's citizens have equitable, affordable and secure access to voice, video and data,” he said.
Another issue raised by the current treaty debate is whether a US-centric Internet is a fundamentally more democratic one.
China, India and Russia are expected to try to shift control of the Internet’s tech specs and domain name system from American IT companies, which control most of the web, to an international organization.
On November 17, Russia submitted a proposal to the ITU to ensure “equal rights to manage the Internet” for all members of the organization, including “allotment, assignment and reclamation of Internet numbering, naming, addressing and identification resources and to support for the operation and development of basic Internet infrastructure.”
The move, earlier supported by China and India, would shrink America’s share of Internet ownership. Washington currently regulates nonprofit organizations tasked with the previously noted Internet functions through the Department of Commerce.
The US has already expressed its unwillingness to support the initiative.