The Dark Side Of Tomorrow's 'Internet Treaty'
Believe it or not, the world has come to believe the United Nations should take a greater role in how the Internet is governed.
Maybe you didn’t agree, but over in Dubai, a major international summit on governing the telecommunications industry has. It’s drawing to a close tomorrow with a vote on a revised set of rules that, critically, now extend to the Internet.
The United States refuses to sign, as does Britain and Canada. They believe the United Nations should have nothing to do with regulating the Internet, a landscape best left to itself, with technical standards set by engineers, multilateral agencies like I.C.A.N.N. and a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Though it’s not the perfect arrangement, it’s likely better than a hierarchical arm of the United Nations taking over. Yet tomorrow’s final vote lays the foundation for creeping control by governments of online content, and largely because the treaty will widen the scope of a U.N. agency called the International Telecommunications Union.
Why is that a problem? Because an international treaty on online content could inadvertently help legitimize actions of censorship and snooping by certain governments. For example, the updated, United Nations treaty will make references to countries cooperating to stop malicious “spam.” This may sound sensible, but it could also make it easier for a nation like China to justify itself on the international stage when, say, it wants to censor a flood of e-mails being passed around the web dissidents. It could declare that the dissident content was “spam.”
Yes, the Chinese government already censors the Internet for its citizens anyway. But having a U.N. pact on cyber security and online content would gradually strengthens China hand on the issue internationally, even when its acts of censorship seem obviously wrong.
Imagine if during the Arab spring, Tunisian and Egyptian protestors had not been able to reveal what was happening on the streets through social media, or if other countries had found themselves obliged by UN agreements to block their content because it was “spam.”
This may seem far-fetched now, especially since the new treaty won’t come into force until January 2015 and even then won’t be legally binding. But international agreements are made gradually and concurrently, and over time they can have a significant impact on the way people are governed. The head of the United States’ 100-man delegation to Dubai is already concerned that the future could see a more legally binding set of rules about Internet governance. It wouldn’t come about from tomorrow’s treaty, but from a series of similar, ongoing summits that get little widespread attention and refer back to each other, gradually hardening rhetoric and guidelines — guidelines that politicians could eventually misuse.
Tomorrow’s final treaty for example, will likely refer back to the World Summit on Information Society held in 2005 in Tunis, widely seen as the moment that “Internet governance” reached beyond technical standards, to policy, content and personal freedoms.
“It’s glacial, but it’s just like geological formations – eventually you’re standing on a pile of rocks that has just shown up,” says Alan Woodward, a visiting professor at the University of Surrey who has closely followed developments with the ITU’s treaty. While the new treaty has been watered down significantly, a key problem is that in Article 3, it appears to give the ITU a more active role in shaping the future of the Internet.
“That one resolution is the thin end of the wedge,” says Woodward. The big concern is that in five to 10 years, we could eventually see decisions made about online content that are very difficult to challenge because they are based on U.N. agreements, like the resolutions that are passed by the U.N. Security Council. None of this is unfamiliar territory. “It’s like when we went into Iraq. We went in by quoting resolution 1441, and it [became] an international action.”
The U.S. could one day experience a flip side of that with net regulation, if countries like China or Russia start referencing new United Nations mandates. “We could be the ones who are isolated,” says Woodward. “They’ll say, ‘You’re in breach of a resolution of a majority vote of the U.N.”
The result: instead of the Internet growing organically by following technological standards, government representatives in closed sessions decide how it is governed. “All of a sudden it becomes a political forum, maybe under the guise of standards such as content management,” says Woodward. “Governments might become obliged to carry out deep-packet inspection, not just traffic analysis but see what people are looking at.”
The global telecoms industry already has regulations in place for the analogue world of telephones that help to counter fraud, but with the Internet providing such a wide span for content, future, similar regulations on something like “malicious content” could infringe free speech.
“These things can build up incrementally, and suddenly there’s a whole framework that’s been decided by non-elected representatives, allowing governments to do things and oblige other governments to cooperate,” says Woodward. “[People] didn’t vote for it. But it just happened.”
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