It is the "most important meeting you've never heard of" — a behind-closed-doors battle for control of the internet that one of the web's founders fears may "put government handcuffs on the net".
The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a United Nations organisation representing 193 countries, is reviewing international agreements governing telecommunications with a view to expanding its regulatory authority over the internet.
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Internet freedom under threat
The International Telecommunications Union will hold a summit in September to discuss regulating internet usage globally. How could this impact Australia?
The ITU will hold a summit in Dubai in December where member countries will negotiate a treaty (last updated 24 years ago in Melbourne) that sets out regulations on how international voice, data and video traffic is handled.
The ITU, founded in 1865 at the dawn of the telegraph, presently focuses on telecommunications networks and radio frequency allocations but some members such as Russia, China and Iran will use the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) to try to expand the treaty to include internet regulation.
Secret WCIT proposals from several stakeholders have been leaked on the website WCITLeaks.org, giving rise to fears from civil liberties groups and the technology industry that the days of a free, open internet are coming to an end.
Chris Disspain, chief executive of Australian domain name administrator auDA, said moving from the current multi-stakeholder model to a government-centric UN-run model would "stifle innovation", be non-inclusive and result in new binding regulations on member governments.
"What it could mean is a whole series of ... new regulations reached by consensus or horse trading amongst governments, with no input from the community, on such things as data retention, censorship, usage, charging models, all sorts of things," Disspain told Fairfax.
Disspain, who is a member of the UN Secretary-General's Internet Governance Multi-stakeholder Advisory Group, said he was aware of European telco proposals for the ITU advocating the move to a user-pays model for services such as email.
He said at the UN, many proposals get "nodded through because people can't be bothered objecting" and there was a risk that "active governments like China and Iran and Russia" who were pushing to control the internet "may end up winning the day".
The issues will be discussed in Canberra tomorrow and Friday at the first Australian Internet Governance Forum.
Google Australia, one of the forum's sponsors, said the internet risks becoming a "slow and stale shadow of its former self" and it would use the event "to draw attention to global threats to the web's freedom from undemocratic and totalitarian regimes, using the ITU to drive their agenda, and the risks for Australia".
Kurt Wimmer, partner with Washington law firm Covington & Burling who has consulted on internet governance issues since the 90s, touched down in Australia yesterday ahead of this week's Canberra forum.
He told Fairfax decentralised regulation of the internet had been "more of a feature than a bug" and he worries the ITU proposal will legitimise the internet censorship conducted by some countries.
"It also hurts someone in Australia who is then unable to communicate effectively with a growing number of people on the internet who are going to be fenced off by these country-by-country systems," said Wimmer, former senior vice president and general counsel for newspaper group Gannett.
Washington DC-based Tom Wheeler, who previously worked in telco policy for three decades including as CEO of the US Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA), called the Dubai summit "the most important meeting you've never heard of".
"What's really afoot, however, is an effort by some nations to rebalance the internet in their favour by reinstituting telecom regulatory concepts from the last century," he said.
"It is a struggle between nation-states — and their vassals — created in an era when networks aggregated economic and political power, and the new era in which the network's distributed architecture has a disaggregating effect on both economic and political power."
He said countries such as India, South Africa and Brazil would attempt to grab a piece of the internet's revenue in the same way they can apply tariffs and other regulations to those connecting with their telephone networks. Other countries like China and Russia would seek to place controls on the freedom of the internet.
"Seemingly benign proposals to allow for regulation related to 'crime' and 'security' would grant international imprimatur to the exertion of control over internet content," he said.
"The recent sentencing of Russian punk rockers Pussy Riot is illustrative in this regard. The Putin-protesting group was sentenced to jail for being a 'crude violation of the social order', a legal construction that WCIT could permit to be extended to the internet and justified as 'within international accords'."
Vinton Cerf, Google's chief internet evangelist who has been recognised as one of the "fathers of the internet", wrote in The New York Times in May that the internet stands at a "cross roads" and any attempts to make it a more closed, controlled medium could "wreak significant social and economic damage".
"The decisions taken in Dubai in December have the potential to put government handcuffs on the net," said Cerf. "To prevent that — and keep the internet open and free for the next generations — we need to prevent a fundamental shift in how the internet is governed."
He said of the 193 member countries, 40 censor internet content (up from four in 2002), and at the conference repressive regimes had an equal voting power to everyone else. Heavy lobbying was going on in secret discussions.
Russian president Vladimir Putin said last June the goal of Russia and its allies was "establishing international control over the internet" through the ITU. Other countries including China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have also submitted proposals to the UN for international internet regulation.
It is easy to see why Google is freaked out. Wheeler said the European Telecommunications Network Operators were lobbying to regulate "over the top" internet users which he said would add new regulations to companies like Google, Netflix and others who use carrier networks.
"It is another last-ditch effort to return to the day when regulators protected carriers from the nasty realities of innovation and competition," he said.
The US, which already has a significant influence on the internet and its core infrastructure, wants to maintain the status quo. US ambassador Terry Kramer, who will head the US delegation to the ITU conference, told reporters this week that doing nothing "would not be a terrible outcome at all", arguing the internet should be left as free and open as possible.
"We need to avoid suffocating the internet space through well-meaning but overly prescriptive proposals that would seek to control content or seek to mandate routing and payment practices," he said.
"That would send the internet back to a circuit switch era that is actually passing in history."
A spokesman for Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said the multi-lateral forums that currently govern the internet have delivered us the "internet as we know it" and "to change the existing arrangements a strong case would need to be made".
While not specifically mentioning the ITU treaty, Opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull came out in support of internet freedom in his Alfred Deakin lecture at the University of Melbourne on Monday night.
He criticised the Australian government for its attempts to control the freewheeling internet, previously with its internet filtering policy but now with proposals to store all Australians' internet usage data for two years.