The Real Threat to Internet Freedom Isn't the United Nations

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Nov. 28 2012 7:30 AM

The Real Threat to Internet Freedom Isn't the United Nations

Governments are cooperating on surveillance in other, less obvious ways.

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Nadine Wolf protests the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act outside the offices of Sen. Charles Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on Jan. 18, 2012 in New York City

Photograph by Mario Tama/Getty Images

This article arises from Future Tense, a joint effort of Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate that looks at emerging technologies and their implications for policy and for society. On Thursday, Nov. 29, Future Tense will host an event in Washington, D.C., on the future of Internet governance. To learn more and to RSVP, visit the New America Foundation’s website. The event will also be streamed live.

Ryan Gallagher Ryan Gallagher

Ryan Gallagher is a journalist who reports on surveillance, security, and civil liberties.

The Internet is often seen as a place of chaos and disorder, a borderless world in which anonymous trolls roam free and vigilante hackers wreak havoc. But as a crucial United Nations conference on the future of telecommunications looms next week, there are fears governments are secretly maneuvering to restructure and rein in the anarchic Web we have come to know and love, perhaps even ushering in a new era of pervasive surveillance. So just how real is the threat of change and what might it mean?

The International Telecommunications Union is meeting in Dubai on Dec. 3—its first summit since 1988—to update the current international telecommunications regulations treaty. The ITU is the UN agency for information and communications technologies, and its members include 193 countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. The regulations are important because they set out the “general principles” intended to assure “the free flow of information internationally.” But a handful of member states—like Russia—are reportedly trying to use the upcoming conference to lobby for more control over the Internet, which some fear could help pave the way for greater surveillance, censorship, and data retention.

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Leaked documents and a draft published by the ITU show proposals to monitor and filter spam or “malicious code.” Others make the case for the ability to block computers judged to “cause harm” to technical facilities or personnel; to establish designated “transit centers” that would offer a “termination service” for shutting off traffic to selected destinations; and to upgrade international laws governing how user data are retained. Internet freedom advocates believe such proposals, if approved, would be used by authoritarian countries as cover to justify draconian monitoring efforts involving the filtering of traffic.

Adding to these anxieties is the perceived secrecy around how the proposals have been drafted. Google last week launched a campaign calling the “closed-door” conference a potential assault on free expression. Other activist groups have taken things even further, agitating for a “global outcry” over what they say is “a panel of governments, giant corporations, and dictatorships” having “absolute power over the entire Internet, deciding in secret what you can see & do online.” The European Parliament has weighed in, warning the United Nations to steer clear of trying to control the Internet, and the U.S. government has also had strong words, commenting in one leaked document that some of the language used in the ITU proposals “does not make sense.”

But is the United Nations really plotting a clandestine Internet coup? Richard Hill, a counselor at the ITU who worked as an editor on the proposals, sounded agitated by the question, sharply dismissing what he called an inaccurate “frenzy of commentary” about the looming conference. Speaking on the phone from Dubai, Hill said claims any new regulations approved by the member states in December would lead to a crackdown on net freedom were “totally overblown” because the regulations are meant only as a guide and still have to be legislated at a national level. Further, free speech would be protected, he said, because any new regulation has to conform to both the ITU’s constitution, which enshrines the right to communicate, and Article 19 of the Convention of Political and Civil Rights, which enshrines free expression. (He did acknowledge some of the proposals for more government control of routing data were controversial, but said “these are just proposals; they’re going to be discussed.”)

Google counters that it is aggrieved that private-sector companies, civil society, and engineering organizations have no final say in decisions made by the conference that could ultimately determine—at least in part—the future trajectory of the Internet. The Center for Democracy and Technology takes a similar position. Ellery Roberts Biddle, a policy analyst at the CDT who will be speaking at the Nov. 29 Future Tense event on Internet governance in Washington, said she would prefer to see the ITU conference focus on improving access to information and communications technologies in developing countries, as opposed to trying to address content-related issues about filtering and cybersecurity.

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