As this post is being put into words, internet’s fate is being decided behind closed doors where delegations from over 150 countries meet to deliberate on the issues concerning the global telecommunications and radio controlled frequency operated communications. The International Telecommunications Union’s conference WICT (World Conference on International Communications) is being held in Dubai. The 12 day conference is scheduled to be held from 3 – 14th Dec and has various issues on its agenda but probably the most important issue that would be discussed would be of internet regulation. The global phenomenon that has connected more than half of the world and has literally changed the way we live is going to have its fate decided in these 12 days.
ITU formulates and regulates international treaties relating to global communications called the ITRs and updates them regularly. The last update conference was held in 1988 at Melbourne, the WATTC-88. This year, the conference also takes into account the issue of internet regulations and censorship, which is generally off the mandate of the ITU. The conference could release a resolution which could enforce strict internet usage regulations, censorship of information or ability to post or retrieve information from the internet – basically, the internet would no longer be the free and open repository as it is now, or at least as the fathers of the internet envisioned it to be.
The UN body as a whole is for the regulations to be put into place. It cited hacker attacks as the basis to ensure tighter internet security and information transparency, some leaked documents shed a light on the matter. China and Russia are among the forerunners that advocate the UN body’s proposal while the US and the UK have taken a stand which resembles that of the NGOs and the independent internet service providers – the stakeholders of the internet as they are better known in the ITU terminology. These stands are not definitive or staunch in any way – the debate will finally decide what is to happen as far as the censorship goes. There are still conflicting topics that Developed countries are divided upon – issues which concern the dissemination and origin of information and data over the inter-web. If the internet is made to come under ITU’s jurisdiction, some of the changes that it will undergo (in other words the policies/changes/regulations that countries are pushing for) will be:
- Tax on the internet: ITU has come up with the proposal of levying a royalty on the use of the internet apart from the service provider charges, much like a telephone call, as the ITU sees fit. The ITU would take over the TCP/IP generation process and would charge the customer. Also, the ITU could have backdoor peering abilities as most ISPs do because the exchange of traffic on the internet occurs without exchange in the physical world, the UTI could be watching all movement on the Web without detection and claim fees based on observations that are not confirmable or verifiable.
- Alter-Resolution: The ITU, to keep its mandate focused, may also decide to not release the regulations in its resolution but to hand over the responsibilities to individual governments to regulate their own policies. This could go up to the point where governments could control the access to the web or completely ban the internet in respective states.
- Backdoor peering/spying: All the transactions of data would be regulated through government channels and would be regulated by a start, middle and end checker which would check the address and identity of the sender and receiver. This would hamper the peer to peer capabilities and torrent exchange of data. This is being done to curb piracy.
- Identification of source: Users sending and receiving information will have to disclose their identity. Government will keep tabs on the sources of information and the nature of information being generated/broadcasted from a particular source/user.
- Right to assign web addresses: ICANN, a United States-based nonprofit under contract to the U.S. Department of Commerce controls the assignment of web addresses right now. This would be the directive of the governments.
- China’s Deep packet Inspection technology could be put into place (still unclear if only in China or as a mandate to the participating nations) which enables the governments to read the imprints on a copyrighted file e.g. an mp3 file and detect the transfer of file (which is not encrypted) from a bit torrent client. Germany opposed the motion stating that the organization must “not standardize any technical means that would increase the exercise of control over telecommunications content, could be used to empower any censorship of content, or could impede the free flow of information and ideas.”
When ITU’s directive came to the office of Indian telecommunication minister’s office, little was done to set up a delegation for WITC. An open house by the minister on Nov 27th started the process. To think that a country where internet awareness is taking the form of a revolution and where the government plays active role in seeking help from Internet bodies to regulate content to some discernible degree didn’t prepare for a historical meeting like this is a little absurd. Much has been written and talked about the Government’s actions concerning the internet usage in India. The IT act also is in the grey area of jurisdiction when experts and critics say that section 66A is just a tool to stifle online opinion about wrong doings.
Many companies related to the internet have started drives and online petition signing and pledge taking programs to make their voices heard. Google’s web evangelist Mr. Vint Cerf who played an important role in shaping the internet as it is today – the free and open resource serving all the three existing generations, urges the users to be aware and raise voices in the form of petitions. As the world leaders decide the fate of the internet (and by the time this post comes out they will most probably be done deliberating), we as the users should realize the power that is in our hands. When we realize the government’s duty to not stifle innovation and creativity, we should also be ready to embrace adequate transparency. The internet in all its capability would rank as one of the ten most important inventions mankind has ever seen after the 20th century. With proper vigilance and responsibility only can we make our voice strong enough to let the leaders know that we as a community demand and deserve the internet unadulterated and uncensored – free and open, as mine as yours’ and as everybody else’s.