Chris Barton on technology

Chris Barton is a Herald Online columnist

Chris Barton: The global battle for internet freedom

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The ITU, an arm of the United Nations, is being asked to look at the how the internet is controlled. Photo / Thinkstock
The ITU, an arm of the United Nations, is being asked to look at the how the internet is controlled. Photo / Thinkstock

The online clamour - voices battling for internet freedom and others battling for internet control - became a one sided conversation last week. The voices of freedom shouted somewhat apoplectically at the voices of control, which were mostly secret whispers outed by leaks.

It's a familiar narrative. People make decisions behind closed doors. Other people don't like it. The secrets get leaked. All hell breaks loose. Think Wikileaks, the Trans Pacific Partnership and now the WCIT leak site.

That's the World Conference on International Telecommunications which is being held by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in Dubai this week.

The ITU, formed in 1865 and an arm of the UN since 1947, is meeting to update the current international telecommunications regulations treaty. What's got folk riled is that instead of sticking to the arcane world of telecommunications interoperability, such as setting country codes for dialling and making sure each country's networks talk to each other, some members of the 157 year old organisation want to bring something bigger - the internet - under their ambit.

The hijacking of the international telecommunications regulations (ITRs) is apparently being done by "a motley assortment of authoritarian countries, legacy telecoms operators, as well as the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and other developing countries". Well, that's how Dwayne Winseck, a professor at Canada's Carleton University's School of Journalism and Communication, describes them.

Some will recall that it was Winseck, who weighed in earlier this year on the unchecked monopolisation of the New Zealand market by Sky, which is another battle for control of the net, in Sky's case by locking up content.

But here, bigger issues are at stake. "Some proposals could permit governments to censor legitimate speech," says Google, heading an online campaign to outflank the voices of control. "Or even allow them to cut off internet access." Terrible. But Google et al's real concern is the proposals which would require services like YouTube, Facebook, and Skype "to pay new tolls in order to reach people across borders." To these companies the idea of internet metered at a tollgate to collect some sort of tax before their services can reach users across the border represents an enormous threat to their businesses. Imagine what would happen to their revenues if every time their traffic crossed geographical borders, a government agency was clipping the ticket.

And imagine what would happen if the ITU did gain more control, allowing authoritarian regimes to block and filter internet traffic in whatever way they see fit. In a New York Times opinion piece, Vinton Cerf, one of the "fathers of the Internet," summed up the danger like this: "Such proposals raise the prospect of policies that enable government controls but greatly diminish the "permissionless innovation" that underlies extraordinary internet-based economic growth to say nothing of trampling human rights." He's talking about the principle that the net, in the way it's currently structured, is open for anyone with a bright idea to simply go ahead and give it a crack. On the net, since no one body controls it, permission is not required. Which is how Facebook, Twitter and all manner of net companies got started.

But Cerf sums up the counter-arguments too. Some countries are concerned about "the outsized role" the United States plays in the direction and development of internet policy. And that the status quo favours the interests of large, global internet companies. To which you could add that such companies have become so big they are like virtual nations - the United States of Facebook, Googleland, the Twitter Union etc - all run by seemingly benign dictators. Not to forget that such companies often aren't too bothered about trampling on citizens' privacy. Note for example that Google has only a week ago confirmed to our Privacy Commissioner that it has finally destroyed the information it illegally took from unsecured WiFi networks during its 2010 Street View filming in New Zealand. Others believe with the ITU at the helm, bridging the digital divide and funding broadband internet upgrades in developing countries would be greatly enhanced.

Various commentators have pointed out that mostly the claims that the UN is seizing control of the net are somewhat overblown. And that repressive regimes already have plenty of ways to control the net and can, if they want, shut it down - as seen in Egypt during the 2011 protests against the Mubarak regime and today in Syria.

But Winseck does have some real concerns about what would happen if the ITU did get control - mainly that it would usher in closed and controlled national "Web 3.0" internet spaces with implications in the areas of identity, privacy and political activity. "In the Web 3.0 model, authoritarian states use filtering and blocking techniques to deny access and (1) establish national laws that put such methods on a firm legal footing, (2) carve out a distinctive national internet-media space dominated by national champions (Baidu, Tencent, Yandex, Vkontakte) instead of Google, Facebook and Apple, within which (3) the state actively uses 'internet-media-communication' campaigns (propaganda) to shape the total information environment."

So it was perhaps heartening to see that our own government has announced its intentions ahead of the Dubai conference. It will be pushing to keep control of the internet out of the International Telecommunications Regulations. Of the proposals on the table ICT Minister Amy Adams said: "It is my view that these changes would be unhelpful, are unwarranted and could represent a significant threat to innovation and free and open debate."

Adams went on to say that "an open and rapidly evolving Internet is an important driver of economic growth and innovation". And that the current multi-stakeholder approach to managing the Internet - through agencies such as ICANN, the Internet Society, and the Internet Engineering Taskforce - supports this.

To which you might sat "Bravo". But that would be to overlook some hypocrisy. Internet use in New Zealand has always been metered. We already allow filtering and the minister is ignoring the "fee-for-carriage" model that's creeping into the New Zealand market. As Winseck points out such "pay-per internet" services are nearly universal in New Zealand and Australia and impose severe burdens on internet users while throttling rivals and eroding the diversity of services. Such practices, says Winseck, allow telecom-ISPs to selectively impose bandwidth caps and heavier charges on some services while lifting the caps and charges for their own or allied services (such as access to Sky content). "In other words, some services chosen by the telecom-ISP get an open pipe while the rest are given something less. Call this a proposal for tolls on the global internet," says Winseck.

Add all that to our draconian "three strikes" copyright regime and the ease with which we seem prepared to give up our sovereignty to American movie industry interests and you have to wonder just how free and open our internet is in New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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