Q&A: why the web watchers worry over UN plans
ITU meeting kicks off amid fears of censorship and heavy-handed governance
Politicians, web experts and trade delegates from around the world will spend the next two weeks in Dubai discussing how the internet should be run at a meeting of the International Telecoms Unions, an off-shoot of the United Nations.
Under discussion will be how the all-important International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) should be modified to include the internet, but critics from Google to civil rights groups claim the UN is not the right forum to manage web governance.
Among the key concerns are that the negotiations are too exclusive because they don't include companies or developing nations, and that repressive governments will use the opportunity to push through rubber-stamped censorship.
We spoke to digital strategy and policy consultant Dominique Lazanski, who is part of the UK's delegation to this week's key World Conference on International Telecommunications, to find out what all the fuss is about.
Q. Is the web overreacting on this or is there a real issue at stake?
A. You see this from a few scare pieces. I come at it from a civil society point of view. One of the things people aren't covering is the fact that the ITU WCIT fundamentally upsets what the ITU put into play with the previous web governance plans.
What's upsetting civil society and companies and delegations that don't agree with some of the proposals that are being put forward is the fact that for the last seven years there's been this approach to internet governance that has come from a multi-stakeholder point of view. The World Summit on Information Society was something that the ITU held between 2003 and 2005 and out of that came the Tunis Agenda, which created the Internet Governance Forum. That was a way to get everyone that was interested in governance, from academia, civil society, businesses government, small countries – everyone – to get together once a year to talk about internet governance. Themes have been child protection, content development and cyber security.
The WCIT comes along after the most recent one and it ends this whole super transparent, completely open and completely free-to-attend process and that's one of the big things that's causing trouble and consternation. The multi-stakeholder thing is being threatened, because civil society is not able to participate except through their delegations. The US and UK will both have civil society people on their delegations to the WCIT, but others won't.
Q. The ITU says people can be involved. Is that not the case?
A. If you are in a developing country or from a country like Egypt or Syria you don't even have an option to go, whereas I was attending the Internet Governance Forum with people from Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Azerbaijan, as well as the US and Canada. Some of these people, like bloggers and activists in those countries, they don't have a voice at the ITU. A lot of countries in Europe just can't afford to send delegations and they are participating through the European Commission which is only an observer – it's not a signatory so can't vote.
Q. What are the key proposals that have led to the widespread concern?
A. Effectively you can break down the ITRs that are being negotiated by themes, and they are put into a treaty to which members sign up.
The ITU dates back to 1865 so the ITRs have their history and have been revised over the years. They were last revised in 1988 and ITRs are for telecommunications only – they're not internet based. And so this year the situation is that countries are making proposals to update the ITRs to bring them into the scope of the internet. Basically they weren't meant to be internet related and that's partly because telecommunications have changed, Now there's mission creep in that certain countries would prefer to have international regulations on content filtering and other things and find this is the appropriate forum.