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Australia fights net rules as threat to free speech

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Dubai mission ... Communications Minister Stephen Conroy.

Dubai mission ... Communications Minister Stephen Conroy.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy arrives in Dubai on Monday to lobby against proposed changes to internet regulation that web giants such as Google warn "could permit governments to censor legitimate speech – or even cut off internet access altogether".

From December 3-14 representatives of 193 governments and other telecommunications stakeholders will gather in Dubai for the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) to update global telecom rules.

Last updated 24 years ago in Melbourne, the treaty sets out regulations on how international voice, data and video traffic is handled. US officials, European Parliament, internet companies and activists have expressed concern at proposals from some countries including Russia and China that seek to extend the regulations to cover the internet.

Now Senator Conroy, who will lead the Australian delegation, has entered the fray, saying “Australia does not believe a case has been made for change”.

Russia in particular has proposed key internet governance roles – currently controlled by apolitical organisations such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) – be taken over by individual member states.

A European telco lobby group, Cameroon and some Arab states are pushing for new regulations that would require high-bandwidth internet companies such as Facebook and Google to pay new tolls to network operators.

Senator Conroy believes the existing multi-stakeholder regulatory model administered by ICANN is “essential for ensuring that the internet remains a central point for innovation and a driver of economic growth”. He said he would formally meet the heads of other delegations in Dubai and hold bilateral meetings with a range of countries to seek their support for Australia's position.

The meeting is organised by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a UN agency.

Google is running a “Take Action” campaign against any new internet regulation. It says only governments have a vote at the ITU and it is the wrong place to make decisions about the future of the internet.

“Some proposals could permit governments to censor legitimate speech – or even cut off internet access altogether,” a Google Australia spokesman said.

But ITU counsellor Richard Hill told Fairfax that far from stifling internet innovation the “true goal of WCIT” was to create a framework to allow people in developing countries to “have access to internet and to broadband”.

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