- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy
Not unless you want to attract some attention from the fuzz. Dubai authorities warned last month that anyone seen wearing a V For Vendetta mask "risks police questioning". The admonition was mainly directed at anyone who might be planning protests for the UAE’s National Day — which was yesterday — but one wonders if they might also have been thinking about this week’s World Conference on International Telecommunications.
It’s not just mask-wearing Anons who have expressed concern about the 193-country conference being organized in Dubai this week by the International Telecommunication Union — a U.N. agency– which is intended to update the 1988 International Telecommunication Regulations for the Internet era.
Participants including the European Union and the United States are opposed to proposals by some countries — notably Russia — that countries should have power to manage their own Internet domain names, as well as any move to give the ITU greater regulatory power over the Internet. Companies like Google argue that the ITU — an organization founded in 1865 to manage telegraph communications — shouldn’t have jurisdiction over the Internet at all and that decisions regarding Internet architecture should not be made by government regulators.
There are also widespread concerns among internet content producers like Google and Facebook over a proposal by a coalition of European telecom network operators as well as some developing country governments that would require web companies to pay a fee to access local telecoms networks. And pretty much everyone is upset about the lack of transparency in the run-up to the conference.
Meanwhile, ITU secretary general Dr Hamadoun Touré, from Mali, has admonished wealthy governments and Internet content giants to remember that "when you talk of internet freedom, most people in the world cannot even access the internet. The internet is the rich world’s privilege and ITU wants to change that."
There’s also a separate debate over how much any of this will matter. The opinions range from Internet pioneer Vint Cerf argues that the decisions made in Dubai this week have "the potential to put government handcuffs on the Net". (He has also referred to government regulators as a "breed of dinosaurs, with their pea-sized brains".)
On the other hand, as several blogs have pointed out, the most radical proposals — such as Russia’s — are unlikely to be adopted, whatever treaty does come out of the meeting will have essentially no enforcement power, and it’s not as if authoritarian governments aren’t doing a perfectly good job censoring web content already.
It certainly seems ill-advised to give more Internet regulatory power to national governments or to a U.N. agency, though I can also understand how odd it must look to users in other countries that much of the net’s administration is in the hands of U.S.-based entities like Internet Engineering Task Force and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which — though now independent — have their origins in U.S. Defense Department projects.
Bringing together web companies, NGOs, and governments to discuss the future of the internet’s administration certainly seems like a worthwile project. But given the atmosphere of mutual suspicion in which this conference is taking place, I’m not too optimistic about a productive outcome.