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What does the WCIT really mean for Internet users?

Categories: Activism, Advocacy, Free Expression, Human Rights, Internet governance, Law, Privacy, Regulation, Surveillance

The World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) [1] in Dubai failed to reach consensus last Thursday, leaving many delegates frustrated after nearly two weeks of intense negotiations.

Governments had gathered in Dubai to revise a key treaty of the International Telecommunication Union [2], a UN agency that sets standards for international telephone networks. What made the conference unique was that many countries wanted to broaden the treaty to cover Internet-related policy. Leaked documents [3] leading up to the conference included proposals that would have encouraged surveillance, censorship, and other practices that could limit user rights.

Governments came to the conference with very different goals concerning the Internet and in the end, the treaty did not satisfy all those who took part — 89 countries [4] (out of 151 present) signed the treaty. Some refused, while others are still deliberating on whether or not to sign.

Delegates raising country cards at WCIT. Photograph by Dominique Lazanski, from Twitter (@dml)

The final text of the treaty does not explicitly apply to the Internet. But it does include articles on the “security and robustness of networks” and “unsolicited bulk electronic communications” (i.e., spam) – contentious issues that have been debated extensively at both national and international levels. The worst versions of these proposals could have been used to legitimize the censorship and surveillance practices of some Member States, but in their current form, as they do not cover the Internet, it’s hard to tell how harmful they might be. Nations that sign the treaty are obligated to try to implement its measures in their own laws, but given the vague, relatively general language used in these key articles, it’s not clear what they will mean in practice.

Signatories also signed a resolution declaring the ITU’s interest in becoming a significant player among global Internet policy-making groups. This left many nations concerned [5] as well — the ITU is a relatively closed, government-driven institution [6] with little opportunity for advocates or experts to weigh in on its decisions. It was clear during the conference that negotiations between countries were not always driven by their commitment to increasing access to networks for all citizens [7], but rather by their own political and economic interests. One could wager that most countries that signed the treaty did not do so with the express goal of asserting control over the Internet.

Although it may not do much immediate damage, in the future the treaty could help position the ITU to become a new authority for setting policies concerning cybersecurity, net neutrality, and other critical issues that affect user rights to privacy and free expression online. It won’t affect laws in countries that don’t sign — and even in many of those Latin American and African states that did sign the treaty, there will likely be little change in how government policies affect user experiences online. But in Russia, former Soviet states, various countries in East Asia, much of the Middle East and North Africa, users could start facing tighter controls.

An entity like the ITU ultimately does not authorize these countries to pass strict measures, but the treaty’s vague language can be read broadly — it may make it easier for these countries to justify their actions and create new, more repressive policies with the apparent blessing of a UN agency. When the treaty goes into effect (in 2015), advocates and users must pay close attention to how their governments respond and what kinds of policy changes follow.

Global Internet traffic map by Joana Breidenbach. Approved for reuse.

At the end of the day, the treaty will not drastically change [8] the state of Internet policy for the world, but it could push us further in the direction of a fractured network where user experiences differ substantially from country to country. To be sure, we have been watching these differences emerge for years. While readers may be familiar with more extreme cases like China, Belarus, Iran, or Syria, it’s important to remember that nearly all the world’s governments are considering ways to control the Internet. Governments from the UK to India to Peru to the US are working to create policies that target issues like piracy, pornography, and legitimate cybercrime, but often go far beyond this and end up limiting user rights as a result.

Even in places like Iceland, a country known for policies that favor the interests of users, these changes will impact user experience. The Internet is a global medium — limitations on expression and privacy in any country will diminish the infinitely rich universe of ideas, creativity, and social action that the Internet gives us.

The narrative of an open Internet reflects an ideal or a goal – while advocates often speak of preserving the open Internet, a more realistic goal might be to keep the Internet as open as possible. As the ITU becomes a more prominent actor in making policy for the global Internet, users, experts, and advocates must watch closely and work together to defend their rights not only at home, but throughout the world.