Arab regimes' new threat to internet

A group of Arab governments have joined forces with Russia in a move to gain more control over the internet. 

The group, led by the United Arab Emirates, are expected to present their proposals next week to the world conference of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) which is meeting in Dubai to prepare a new international treaty on cross-border communications.

The ITU, which operates under UN auspices, has traditionally dealt with such matters as technology standards for telephone companies and payments for international phone calls. But now, an Arab-Russian alliance is seeking to extend the scope of the global treaty to include the internet – a move that the US, Japan, Australia and others are resisting.

Details of the UAE-led proposal have not been released butReuters reports:

"All of the indicators we have so far is it's something that could be a clear effort to extend the treaty to cover Net governance," said policy counsel Emma Llanso of the nonprofit Center for Democracy & Technology, which draws funding from Google and other U.S. Internet companies.

"What we're seeing is governments putting forward their visions of the future of the Internet, and if we see a large group of governments form that sees an Internet a lot more locked down and controlled, that's a big concern."

The US ambassador to the conference said in an earlier interview that his country would not sign any agreement that dramatically increased government controls over the Internet.

That would potentially isolate America and its allies from much of the world ...

At the conference earlier this week, the US and Canada, with European backing, sought to pre-empt the move with a proposal to limit the ITU's scope to telecom companies – specifically excluding internet-based companies such as Google – but failed to win enough support.

Writing on CNN's website, Vinton Cerf, Google's "Chief Internet Evangelist", says some governments are using the ITU conference in Dubai "to further their repressive agendas". 

"Accustomed to media control, these governments fear losing it to the open internet. They worry about the spread of unwanted ideas. They are angry that people might use the internet to criticise their governments.

"The ITU is bringing together regulators from around the world to renegotiate a decades-old treaty that was focused on basic telecommunications, not the internet. Some proposals leaked to the WICITLeakswebsite from participating states could permit governments to justify censorship of legitimate speech – or even justify cutting off internet access by reference to amendments to the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs).

"Several authoritarian regimes reportedly propose to ban anonymity from the web, making it easier to find and arrest dissidents. Others have proposed moving the responsibilities of the private sector system that manages domain names and internet addresses to the United Nations. Yet other proposals would require any internet content provider, small or large, to pay new tolls in order to reach people across borders."

In any case, Cerf argues, the ITU is the wrong place to make decisions about the internet:

"Only governments have a vote at the ITU. This includes governments that do not support a free and open internet. Engineers, companies, and people that build and use the web have no vote.

"The multi-stakeholder model of internet policy development that is the hallmark of the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the Internet Governance Forum, the Regional Internet Registries, among many others, is the only sensible way forward."

But repressive governments are not looking for a sensible way forward. That's why they see the ITU as a useful forum to pursue their agendas.

  • On Wednesday, while the ITU conference was under way in Dubai, authorities in the neighbouring emirate of Sharjaharrested 18-year-old Mohamed Salem al-Zumer in connection with comments posted on the internet supporting prominent jailed activists.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 December 2012.