December will see the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), organised by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a specialised UN agency that sets standards for international telephony. The Dubai-based conference will bring together 190 nations and, while members have been meeting behind closed doors, various policy proposals have been leaked by activists on the website WCITLeaks.
There are huge decisions at stake over the future of internet governance, with the battle lines being drawn between governments that see the access to information as a matter of human rights, and others that consider the control of information to be an issue for the state.
Russia and China have been putting forward proposals to regulate certain areas of the web — citing the old axioms of crime and security, for one. These are areas which are currently unregulated due to, as Rebecca MacKinnon writes, a “lack of international consensus over what those terms actually mean or over how to balance enforcement with the protection of citizens’ rights.” Of course, this is not the first time these two nations have banged that drum against Western domination over such institutions or asserted their national sovereignty over cyberspace.Nor is it just authoritarian regimes with patchy human rights records that are citing these as justification for national control of the web. A year ago, Brazil and South Africa called for a global internet governance body to be located within the UN system.
Opponents believe such proposals encroach upon the free and open nature of the internet. If the governance of the internet were in the hands of a UN body, this trend of individual nations exerting overt censorship will be strengthened. Russia’s creation last month of a blacklist of websites that promote drugs or suicide or contain porn or “extremist” materials is just one example of a trend in which free expression is continually chilled. China, a country of 500 million internet users, also finds sophisticated ways of censoring the web (see Dinah Gardner’s thorough explainer here).
Yet the current multi-stakeholder approach is not without its problems, either (MacKinnon gives an illuminating rundown of the current governance ecosystem here). As Katitza Rodriguez of the Electronic Frontier Foundation noted at a panel this summer, “a large part of the world’s population feels excluded from international Internet policy making venues.” While this is certainly the case, this exclusion is exacerbated when restrictive internet policies are imposed on the world by a handful of governments pursuing a national agenda.
A major challenge will be diversifying the multi-stakeholder model to include more voices who are not only the most affected by but also vulnerable to repressive internet policies, as MacKinnon has highlighted.
But as actors work out which governance model suits the web — and freedom of expression — best, December’s conference, as Index trustee John Kampfner writes, marks “just the start of the battle between those who wish to keep the internet (relatively) free and those who will do everything in their power to reverse the process.” More power games lie ahead in the fight for online freedom.
Marta Cooper is an editorial researcher at Index. She tweets at @martaruco