Free And Open? World Governments Discuss The Internet In Secret

In the desert oasis of Dubai, Internet change is brewing. In a hush-hush closed-door meeting, government representatives from around the world have gathered this week to decide the future of the Internet. The freedom of the Internet.  

The International Telecommunication Union for the World Conference on International Telecommunications is a 12-day conference for nations to potentially expand their control over the Internet. Topics range from the esoteric to the critical: data privacy, cybersecurity, international mobile roaming, equipment specifications and the like.

More than 193 members states are part of the union, established more than 100 years ago, in the telegraph era, It's now  a United Nations specialized agency focusing on telecommunications and information and communication technology. 

Sunday, Google executive and co-founding architect of the Internet, Vint Cerf, warned that the goal of the secret meeting is to "allow governments to justify the censorship of legitimate speech, or even cut off Internet access in their countries." 

Cerf calls for the Internet to stand up for its rights.

What You Can Do

A slew of petition and protest sites have opened on the topic. In fact, as of late Sunday night, nearly 1 million people worldwide had signed an anti-regulation petition on freeandopen. Other petitions include a Google take-action site (no word on signatures gathered) and the Protect Global Internet Freedom site, with about 35,000 signers from 167 countries.

Indeed, a viral movement similar to last year's campaign against new Internet regulation in the United States (see What You Need To Know About SOPA In 2012) is coalescing.

The bottom line is the Internet was made by people, not governments. And governments being governments, they want to control people. This threatens the very infrastructure that so many depend on every day.   

"The Internet works," says security researcher Dan Kaminsky. Kaminsky has advised Fortune 500 companies for more than a decade, and helped find and fix a major flaw in the Web's Domain Name System. He's one of only seven Recovery Key Shareholders with the ability to restore the DNS root keys (he's the American representative). Saying he knows what's best for the Internet is an understatement. 

"There were many attempts at making large scale information systems that most assuredly did not work," he said.  "For example, MiniTel, which should have been one of France's major exports, was just shut down."

Kaminsky says what kills every attempt at change are the gatekeepers of the Internet, not the creators.  

"States are in a hard situation," he said. "They are under a remarkable amount of pressure to do something about this messy thing that runs so much of business and life now. But the temptation is to make it the very thing that we know does not work, does not scale, does not drive business. What's happening at ITU is the discussion of whether this path should be taken anyway. I'm glad Google is pushing back."

All Talk?

Follow the conference (2) on Twitter. Here's an opening tweet from the union's Twitter account: 

Toby Johnson, a communication staffer for the ITU tweeted to me that all plenary sessions are open to the press, and that the ITU  are aiming for consensus over voting. 

Those talks will be available live and via webcast. Check out Storify to follow along.

Here's a full schedule of the two-week event. Closed-door sessions likely will be the scene of handshake deals that will determine our future. 

Watch this video to see exactly what's at stake:

 

Is This Legal?

Harvard-trained lawyer and Wirelawyer founder Matthew Tollin says it's all legal, and calls the meeting of historic significance.

"From a legal perspective, the governmental representatives meeting at the World Conference on International Telecommunications are answerable to their citizens," Tollin said.

In other words, the same anti-regulatory backlash that whipped U.S. lawmakers, dissuading them from implementing unpopular changes, could swap global bureaucrats. Let's hope so.

Tollin said that U.S. sentiment in the meeting will strongly influence the final outcome. However, China, Iran and Russia will still push for greater controls. 

"It's a great opportunity for us to show leadership on this issue and not side with repressive governments around the world that want to stifle free speech on the Web," Tollin said.   

Let's hope that the people make enough noise to be heard.

 

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