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Control the Internet

April 2013

A couple of months ago, I mentioned a proposal by a branch of the United Nations (the ITU), to try and create some sort of global internet control organisation.  In my view it amounted to a plan for Internet domination, and I’m glad to say that it has, for the moment, foundered.

It was all part of a slightly dramatic conference in Dubai, complete with quarrels, shouting, flouncing out and the usual late night procedural wrangles that accompany these affairs, peopled as they tend to be by politicians and civil servants on a free trip, together with special interest groups and lobbyists pursuing a single agenda.

Ultimately, the UK, alongside the USA, Canada and Australia, walked out in disgust, and so are not party to the agreement that was cobbled together by those left behind.  Without the backbone of the English speaking internet, not to mention the majority of internet systems, the treaty is of limited global influence and the rebels are free to plough their own digital furrows.

Unfortunately, this is far from the end of the story, because the slightly preposterous ITU (International Telecommunications Union - is actually rather a good idea.  Since 1947, its main purpose has been to monitor and update a binding international treaty which defines the basis on which countries connect their native telephone systems to each other.  It sets out who will pay what to which country, what the tariff is and so on.

It’s a perfectly respectable aim, and the truth is that we need such a treaty to avoid chaos, impossibly complex international connection protocols and massive rises in costs.  However, it was originally drafted before the internet was even considered, and even the current version was agreed in 1988, so is already wildly out of date. 

Step forward the opportunists.  The astonishing growth of the internet is seen by some member states of the ITU, especially some of the more authoritarian ones, as as a chance to get a proper grip on the internet, its content and users.  

Plenty of the world already imposes strict internet controls.  China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Cuba, Burma, Kuwait, Syria, UAE and many others do, and most of them were quite happy with the current fairly vague wording that would allow the signatories to dictate what should be allowed on the internet, who should be allowed to put it there and more.

The countries that walked out spotted this danger and, well, walked out.  For example, the treaty now includes provision to allow measures to prevent unsolicited bulk email.  None of us welcomes “spam”, as it’s known, but ask yourself this:  how would they know it is unsolicited unless they had a look at it?  And it’s only a small step from that to insist on looking at all emails.  One thing you can always be sure of is that if you give any government an inch, they will happily take a mile. 

Anyway, we are safe for the moment, but the lame duck treaty that emerged from that bad tempered event expires in 2015 and we do need something of its kind in place, or international communications will become more difficult at best.

It’s all rather a muddle, and emphasises the growing  digital divide between countries with free and effective use of the internet and those without;  only about a third of the world’s population has decent internet access, but it’s the two thirds who are generally in favour of the treaty as it is.

The ITU will no doubt seek to persuade the doubters to change their minds.  It’s happened before; the current treaty was initially rejected by scores of countries, but they all caved in eventually. 

Ironically, it may be the internet, the very subject of the treaty, which prevents that happening now.  There is a lot of very public opposition plastered all over cyberspace and it’s growing.  I’ll let you know how matters develop.

Download the final agreement from here
(if you are really short of a thing to do...)