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U.N. summit may usher in more Internet regulations

Next week's Dubai summit could lead to more control by national governments, speakers at a Stanford University event say, unless Internet users take action to protect their rights.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
4 min read
Stanford law school panelists warn of dangers of U.N. summit. From left: Larry Irving, David Gross, Patrick Ryan, Larry Downes
Panelists at a Stanford Law School forum warn of dangers at the upcoming U.N. summit. From left: Larry Irving, David Gross, Patrick Ryan, and Larry Downes. Declan McCullagh/CNET

PALO ALTO, Calif.--A United Nations summit next week could imperil Internet freedom and lead to a deluge of intrusive new national regulations, Google and a member of the U.S. delegation warned.

"We want to maintain a platform of a free and open Internet as a platform for free expression," Patrick Ryan, an attorney at Google, said at a forum organized by Stanford Law School here yesterday afternoon. Google has organized a new campaign to draw attention to the summit, saying some governments "are trying to use a closed-door meeting in December to regulate the Internet."

Ryan's remarks echo broader concerns about the Dubai summit, including criticism from the European Parliament, the Internet Society, and international civil liberties groups. In a sharply partisan U.S. election year, this was a rare point of bipartisan accord: the House of Representatives unanimously approved a resolution endorsing a "global Internet free from government control."

Even a topic like reducing e-mail spam, which might seem unobjectionable, can become highly politicized through this process, said David Gross, a former U.S. ambassador and member of the current delegation. "One person's spam is another person's political speech," he said. "Who gets to decide? There's a whole series of things that on the surface may not seem politically sensitive but when you peel it back it is."

U.N. meetings -- this one is being convened by an agency called the International Telecommunication Union -- often result in more rhetoric than substance. During a U.N. conference in Tunisia in 2005, for instance, Iran and African governments proclaimed that the Internet permits too much free speech, with Cuba's delegate announcing that Fidel Castro believed it was time to create a new organization "which administers this network of networks."

The difference next week is that the ITU is meeting to rewrite the International Telecommunications Regulations (PDF), a multilateral treaty that governs international communications traffic. The treaty was established in 1988, when home computers used dial-up modems, the Internet was primarily a university network, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was a mere 4 years old.

One example of where some countries stand: last fall, China, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan submitted a proposal to the U.N. asking for the creation of an "International Code of Conduct for Information Security." It called for international cooperation in controlling "dissemination of information" that "undermines other countries' political, economic, and social stability" -- which appears to mean censoring political speech appearing on Web pages, social network posts, and so on.

Recently leaked documents show that Russia hasn't moderated its position much since. As CNET contributor Larry Downes, who also moderated yesterday's Stanford panel, reported last week, Russia proposed that the U.N. take over the responsibilities of the Internet Society and ICANN, which manages domain names and addresses. (A subsequent draft a few days later backtracked a bit.)

At the same time, a trade association representing many European network operators have advanced their own ITU proposal that would establish the principle of sender-party-pays for Internet traffic. Not-so-coincidentally, a lot of Internet traffic is sent to Europe from the United States.

"If you have a speaker of any kind who wants to speak on the Internet...if they suddenly have to pay a toll to be able to do that, that's really going to quell speech," Ryan, the Google attorney, said.

Other proposals likely to emerge as flashpoints include ones dealing with cybersecurity, surveillance, censorship, online crime, and protecting national security.

For their part, ITU officials have attempted to downplay criticism, saying that whatever is decided next week at the World Conference on International Telecommunications, or WCIT, is up to the member countries that are sending delegations to Dubai. Hamadoun I. Touré, the ITU's secretary general, wrote in an opinion article in Wired this month:

Governments are looking for more effective frameworks to combat fraud and other crimes. Some commentators have suggested such frameworks could also legitimize censorship. However, Member States already have the right, as stated in Article 34 of the Constitution of ITU, to block any private telecommunications that appear "dangerous to the security of the State or contrary to its laws, to public order or to decency."

An ITU spokesman, Paul Conneally, wrote a blog post last week that defended the organization against allegations of secrecy. A Wikileaks-like site, WCITLeaks.org, has been posting some of the confidential proposals from various countries, but it only has acquired a small fraction of the total, and the ITU has refused to release the rest.

"At ITU, transparency is achieved at the national level, through national consultations in national languages," Conneally wrote. "A process we believe more inclusive than simply posting an English language text online."

Another WCITLeaks-posted document (PDF) from a staff retreat in Geneva in September shows the ITU is highly sensitive to public criticism and the perception it's engaged in a power grab. The internal document says: "Negative media coverage in the U.S. continues, and is now starting to appear in developing countries, and the Secretariat continues its effort to counter this."