December 3rd, 2012
Just last week, on Thursday, November 29th, the country of Syria experienced a massive communications blackout in the midst of the 20-month-old uprising against President Bashar Assad. While smaller outages have been reported, during the past year, the scale of this communications shut-down was unprecedented. Severing Internet access across the country, in addition to suspending cell phone services in particular areas, Syrian government officials crippled the country’s communicative abilities until late afternoon on Saturday. While government officials claimed that the shut-down was an act of terrorism, its timing was far too coincidental to ignore. With rebel militias preparing an assault on Damascus, an unsuspected communications shut-down would largely thwart opposition groups’ operations and allow the government to sneakily disrupt rebel offensives. Echoing the Internet shut-down in Egypt last January, which occurred just hours before the organization of large-scaled street protests against President Mubarak in Cairo, Syria’s Internet blackout is a striking example of why we should care about who controls the Internet.
When it comes to the Internet, very few individuals understand how it is governed, which is a critical problem during a time when the future of the Internet is under review. The World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) has just started in Dubai, United Arab Emirates and will continue until December 14th, 2012. The purpose of the conference is to rewrite the 25 year old International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs), a globally binding treaty signed by 178 countries that outlines principles for the widespread provision and operation of international communication technologies (ICTs).[i] While it may sound rather dry, the conference is pivotal in terms of renewing old regulation to include the Internet – a technology that is so pervasive in our day-to-day lives. Specific regulatory issues that are up for debate at this year’s conference relate to topics such as, but not limited to, cybersecurity, interconnection and interoperability, accounting rates and taxation, and human rights.[ii]
Whether you are browsing the Internet, sending an email or text message, watching television, or using your phone, the use of such global information and communication technologies is largely governed by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). An agency of the United Nations, the ITU has a vision to connect all the world’s people and is responsible for the regulation of information and communicative technologies. Specifically, some of the ITU’s main responsibilities include the allocation of global resources like satellite orbital positions, the establishment Internet standards, and the development of initiatives to help bridge the digital divide. While that sounds wonderful, in theory, the operating structure of the ITU poses some problems when it comes to the maintenance of an open and affordable Internet. ITU membership is made up of 193 countries, and over 700 private-sector entities and academic institutions.[iii] However, there is a third, critical pillar that is missing from that picture: civil society.
In the aftermath of Syria’s Internet shut down, it is quite valid to question whether or not it is appropriate for governments to be establishing the regulation for an otherwise decentralized Internet. One of the most captivating aspects of the Internet is its openness. As a communications platform, the Internet resembles a commons that is open for all users to access, utilize, and benefit from.[iv] The open nature of the Internet allows it to maintain the principle of generativity, which means that the Internet is able to foster creativity by allowing users to innovate and share new ideas without the threat of gatekeepers. Identifiable by its bottom-up structure, the Internet’s structure inherently promotes democratic ideals as it supports a community-oriented contribution system. As such, the Internet is a critical tool for human rights and civil society groups as it functions as an appropriate platform for free speech.
On July 5th, 2012, the Human Rights Council of the United Nations extended free speech to the Internet when it adopted Resolution L13, the Promotion, Protection and Enjoyment of Human Rights on the Internet. Specifically, the Resolution affirms that the same rights that people have offline must be protected online, in terms of freedom of expression, and it recognizes the global and open nature of the Internet as an important force of development.[v] The Resolution was the first of its kind, as it finally assured that the protection of human rights was transferable to the Internet. For the first time, free speech was extended to the digital world.
By allowing free speech to shift to the Internet, the Internet is now a digital version of a public forum. In terms of free speech, this is significant because a public forum plays an important role in allowing for the dissemination of ideas and information. For civil society groups, the Internet differs from the conventional public forum in that it provides a new sense of anonymity. Unlike a physical public forum, a member of a civil society group has the potential to openly voice his or her opinion on the Internet, using appropriate privacy technologies, without the fear of being unjustly punished by government authority. With increased governmental regulation over the Internet, such anonymity is put at risk and left at the mercy of surveillance and censorship controls. While governments often argue that control over the Internet is a necessary national security measure, the detriment that this poses to the Internet as a decentralized, democratic forum is unmistakable. The regulatory decisions made at the WCIT will largely set a precedent for the government’s role in controlling the Internet, especially when responding to Syria’s Internet shut-down. Should members of the WCIT rule in favour of governmental control of the Internet in the establishment of updated ITRs, legal arguments supporting the country’s shutdown would serve to minimize the extremity of the event’s impact.
Another obvious problem with the WCIT is that it is mainly a closed-door conference. The ITU has not necessarily been transparent, in terms of the proposals that it has put forth for regulations, as each member is able to submit regulatory changes privately. Vinton Cerf, Google’s chief Internet proponent also known as one of the ‘fathers of the Internet’, opposes the ITU’s current approach to Internet regulation as he states, “History is rife with examples of governments taking actions to ‘protect’ their citizens from harm by controlling access to information and inhibiting freedom of expression and other freedoms outlined in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We must make sure, collectively, that the internet avoids a similar fate.”[vi] To help advance the promotion of an open Internet from a community standpoint, Google has even created a website upon which people can easily sign a petition to make their voices heard at http://www.freeandopenweb.com. As of now, an astounding number of individuals have signed the petition, with over 2.5 million voices supporting a free and open Internet. In an effort to act as a conduit for greater transparency, http://www.wcitleaks.org is another Internet-based reaction to the WCIT that offers a way for individuals to anonymously post documents that they have access to in order to make them publically available.
As an institution, the ITU has the potential to act as a valid organizational body to address Internet concerns related to its three main areas of activity, which include radiocommunications, standardization, and development[vii]; however, from a multi-stakeholder approach. In order to make informed decisions about the Internet, it is important to involve stakeholders from a variety of issue baskets, including players with developmental, economic, legal, infrastructure, and socioeconomic concerns. The Internet is quite complex, from a technological standpoint, and it is faulty to think that governments and private players alone can make regulatory decisions for a piece of technology that affects society on a global level. In order to maintain the decentralized structure of the Internet, it is best to approach governance as a participatory process, or else we run the risk of fundamentally altering the ways in which we interact with a piece of technology that is so critical as a source of information access and communication.
For citizens interested in speaking out about the governance process taking place at the WCIT, OpenMedia.ca is a Vancouver-based non-governmental organization that has created a user-friendly campaign to call upon the ITU to reject any proposals that could threaten the exercise of human rights online. As a grassroots organization, OpenMedia.ca safeguards the possibilities of an open and affordable Internet while working towards informed and participatory digital policy.[viii] To make your voice heard, please visit http://www.protectinternetfreedom.net/. For additional resources related to protecting global internet freedom, visit OpenMedia.ca’s partners at http://www.fightforthefuture.org/# and https://www.accessnow.org/.
By: Stella Habib
Stella Habib is the 2012-2013 Co-Director of the OpenMedia McGill Student Chapter and is pursuing her Bachelor of Commerce degree in International Management with a focus on Media Governance and Communication Policy.
[ii] “WCIT-12: Background Briefs and FAQs.” ITU. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2012. <http://www.itu.int/en/wcit-12/Pages/WCIT-backgroundbriefs.aspx>.
[v] Zeldin, Wendy. “U.N. Human Rights Council: First Resolution on Internet Free Speech.”Library of Congress Home. Library of Congress, 12 July 2012. Web. 29 Nov. 2012. <http://www.loc.gov/lawweb/servlet/lloc_news?disp3_l205403231_text>.
[vi] Cerf, Vinton. “‘Father of the Internet’: Why We Must Fight for Its Freedom – CNN.com.”CNN. Cable News Network, 30 Nov. 2012. Web. 30 Nov. 2012. <http://edition.cnn.com/2012/11/29/business/opinion-cerf-google-internet-freedom/index.html>.
[vii] “What Does ITU Do?” What Does ITU Do? N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2012. <http://www.itu.int/en/about/Pages/whatwedo.aspx>.