UN Internet Treaty is Hijacked by Authoritarian Countries, US Refuses to Sign

Freedom and the free flow of ideas and information took a blow this week.

The Wall Street Journal reports that 89 nations signed a treaty to restrict and exert greater control over the internet at the recently concluded World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). Twenty countries, including the United States, refused to sign the new treaty. A new war has been ushered in by this decision. As Yoda would have said, “The shroud of the dark side has fallen. Begun the Digital Cold War has.”

The new treaty “extends control over Internet companies, not just telecoms” and allows the signing countries to “invoke U.N. authority to take control over access to the internet,” according to the WSJ. This includes “the U.N.'s blessing to censor, monitor traffic, and prosecute troublemakers.” The nations signing the new treaty represented the “authoritarian majority” of the United Nations and included Russia, China, Arab countries, Iran and much of Africa.

The WSJ reported that “authoritarian governments want to legitimize government censorship, tax Internet traffic that crosses national boundaries and mandate that ITU bureaucrats replace the nongovernmental engineering groups now smoothly running the Internet.”

Opponents of the treaty measures insist that the internet should continue to be governed by non-governmental agencies, like ICANN, IFTF, and WC3. Representatives of the US delegation told CIO-Asia “broad powers designed to increase network security could too easily be abused.”

The WCIT is sponsored by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).  “The ITU is a UN organization responsible for coordinating telecoms use around the world. Leading up to the conference, leading technology companies, privacy organizations, and pioneers in technology had all expressed concern about the secretive, “behind closed doors” discussions taking place in Dubai. Google, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the European Commission and Internet pioneer Vint Cerf all expressed their opposition to the format of the meeting, according to Tech News World.

Google spokesperson Christine Chen told Tech News World “only governments have a vote at the ITU.” Vint Cerf, Vice President of Google and Chief Internet Evangelist, is an internet pioneer. He is recognized as “one of the founding fathers of the internet.” Cerf noted that “more than 1000 organizations from more than 160 countries” had voiced concerns about the ITU meeting in Dubai. The Electronic Foundation Frontier, a privacy rights advocacy group, had led a “coalition of 32 privacy and civil rights organizations” demanding that the WCIT end the secrecy and “respect the multi-stakeholder process.”

The Australian news agency IT News explained that the authoritarian majority had raised concerns about “internet-based warfare, international cybercrime or internal dissidents' use of so-called ‘over-the-top’ services such as Twitter and Facebook that are outside the control of domestic telecom authorities.”

Cerf challenged any notion that the authoritarian majority was acting on behalf of its citizens. Cerf writes, “History is rife with examples of governments taking actions to ‘protect’ their citizens from harm by controlling access to information and inhibiting freedom of expression. Within a few decades of Gutenberg's creation, princes and priests moved to restrict the right to print books.”

The Guardian reported that the “US was first to declare its opposition to the draft treaty” citing its inability to “support an ITU Treaty that is inconsistent with the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance.”

The United States had led a coalition of 55 countries, including the European Union in opposing the inclusion of censorship measures in the treaty setting up what some feel may be a fragmented internet and a “split in the structural underpinnings of the Internet.” IT News said that network “traffic could be subjected to massive firewalls along national boundaries.” At a minimum the treaty means that for some there will be “stricter national regulations requiring internet service providers and others to help monitor, report, and censor content.”

Others believe that the U.S. effort effectively halts the treaty which was scheduled to go into effect in 2015. “Although a number of other countries will sign it, the treaty cannot be effectively implemented” explained the Guardian.

For now, movements like the Arab Spring, which leveraged the internet, will be relying on technologists to circumvent the barriers erected by countries like China, trying to suppress freedom movements and free thought. Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet Society, said that virtual private network technology, backup hosting, and distribution could play a role in circumventing national controls. Zittrain said, “We can devise systems for keeping content up amidst filtering or denial-of-service attacks, so that a platform like Twitter can be a genuine choice for someone in China.”

Cerf said, “internet lovers around the world can learn more about the issue on our website and if they choose to do so, can pledge their support.”