Who should govern the Internet? This is the question which an International Telecommunications Union (ITU) conference attended by representatives of almost 200 countries failed to answer in December. Though it is universally agreed that the existing International Telecommunications Regulations treaty which has been in place since 1988- before even the idea of the World Wide Web existed- must be overhauled, fundamental divisions over core principles resulted in over 80 countries walking out of talks. The United States, Britain, Australia and Canada led the walkout.
This conference aimed to bring the laws controlling the technical base of our Internet. Inevitably, the matter is highly complex- a reason why the popular media have given this vital issue far too little attention. If the British public knew, for example, that the Department for Work and Pensions owns £1.5 billion worth of unused IP addresses, there would be greater pressure on governments to manage the web responsibly. There would be greater controversy surrounding the ITU’s failure to make progress.
The disagreements were threefold. Firstly, an Eastern bloc including Russia and China proposed recognising the right of national governments to “have equal rights to manage the internet, including in regard to the allotment, assignment and reclamation of internet numbering, naming, addressing and identification resources”. In effect, this would give national authorities the ability to censor and cut-off websites and Internet users with much greater ease. This is because at present the Domain Name System (DNS) is centralised in two servers in the US. “So what?” you might ask. The DNS is the system which allows computers and servers to connect to each other through the Internet, so whoever controls the DNS controls the entire web as you are I would know it. Understandably, there was considerable Western unease at the idea of giving authoritarian regimes any influence over DNS management. Others have said that the ITU (a United Nations agency) should be entrusted with these powers, as the US is as much a partisan foreign power as any other country, and could easily override the arms-length management structure if it were so inclined. It was not surprising that this may have contributed to American nationalist feeling.
The second point of conflict was a move by several African states to enshrine access to telecommunications as a “human right” for individuals around the world, which means the new treaty would have included provision to promote the development of telecoms infrastructure in the developing world. Most of us would agree that widespread web access is essential to the economic wellbeing of all in today’s world, and so the suggested addition to the treaty would be welcome. Again, a block of authoritarian governments were the source of the trouble. According to the Russian government “states have rights too”- the right to control web traffic. No agreement resulted.
Lastly, there were alarming proposals regarding “the current disconnect between sources of revenue and sources of costs” in broadband infrastructure. This has long been a complaint of broadband suppliers, and in my view an unjustified one. What the firms have been lobbying for over many years, and would have been given under the treaty plans, is the power (subject to national approval) for ISPs to charge websites which generate a high volume of traffic a contribution towards the upkeep of their networks. The conventional logic is that the public, as broadband subscribers, are paying for a service: the linkage of their computers to any the 700,000,000+ websites available. In that way the Internet can flourish with minimal operating costs and consumers accept higher upfront costs in a competitive market because they know that the Internet is of a better quality as a result. But imagine what would happen if a certain 2005 video sharing start-up had to contend with massive traffic surcharge, swelling already deep losses. Would YouTube have taken off if it had to charge users? What about Twitter or Facebook? Wikileaks has always had financial difficulties, and would have simply been unable to liberate information as is has in recent years. Much of the blogosphere would be wiped out. WordPress, for example, is hardly a profit-making organisation
What we witnessed at the ITU conference was the failure of Western corporate interests and corrupt dictatorships to undermine the very principles that we cherish in our Internet. Yes, it’s often mocked as a convenient way to order pizza, ogle at pornography or share funny cat videos, but it is also a game-changing means of ensuring the democratic spread of information. If you want to reach an audience of thousands of people, it no longer takes a post at a newspaper or TV station: the Internet is the world’s most open publisher. Gone are the days when a government can keep its citizens in the dark: the vulnerable broadcast media no longer have the monopoly on the spread of information. In the same way, corporate power is diminished as the public can no longer be silenced with a scary libel writ (which multinational seem able to produce on demand)
However, if we are not ferocious in defence of the free web, the threat to it is very strong, as we saw at the conference. We have not seen the last of that threat, and we’d be well advised to pay more attention to that which will affect the development of our society and freedoms within it forever.