World leaders are meeting in Dubai this week for the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), and depending on whose perspective you get, the future of the entire Internet as we know it may be at stake.
Over the past few months, a number of civil society groups have sounded the alarm bells about the potential outcomes of the conference—and with good reason, since some of the proposed revisions to the International Telecommunications Regulations, particularly those submitted by countries already known for censorship online and human rights violations, could have serious consequences on the global Internet if they are implemented. The U.S. government has joined in, along with the leaders of several other countries, threatening to block any major changes that would expand the ITU’s authority over Internet governance. The best possible outcome for the United States is a continuation of the status quo, since US institutions and companies currently play a significant role in Internet governance.
But another trend has also become clear in the debate leading up to the WCIT and in the early discussions in Dubai. Many countries, particularly members of the Global South which see access to the Internet as an essential part of development, are unhappy with the current Internet governance process. It can be tempting to pretend that all of these countries are akin to Russia, China, and Iran, who seem to be angling to use the ITU as a means to assert greater control over the internet, but it would be misleading to lump them all together.
It’s clear that change needs to happen, although the consensus seems to be that the ITU is not the appropriate forum to make such changes. Nonetheless, the attention surrounding the WCIT could actually be an opportunity to shift the conversation. All of the energy that various groups are pouring into advocacy around this conference is encouraging, but it would be a shame if it stops on December 14. Many of the major issues on the table in Dubai are part of a larger, ongoing dialogue on Internet governance that will not likely end any time soon. It’s time for members of civil society, industry, and government to commit to working toward a better, more inclusive multistakeholder process that not only protects the Internet as we know it now, but encourages growth and innovation going forward.