The International Telecommunication Union, an international agency originally formed in 1865 to regulate international telegraph lines, will meet this December to debate handing governments more control over the Internet.
The World Conference on International Telecommunications will convene Dec. 3 in Dubai to update the International Telecommunications Regulations treaty, and may mark an unprecedented encroachment by the ITU into Internet-governance.
Delegates will be discussing a number of proposals championed by authoritarian regimes like Russia, China and Saudi Arabia aimed at enhancing governments’ ability to block and spy on online traffic, and reducing the control of U.S.-based Internet-governance bodies like ICANN (which assigns Web addresses).
Most alarming to Internet freedom advocates is an initiative called “Requirements for Deep Packet Inspection in Next Generation Networks,” a technology standard that would allow state telecom authorities to decrypt Internet communications traveling within their borders. The coalition of authoritarian states is also seeking more control over the assignment of IP addresses (which advocates fear could be used to muzzle online dissent) and an spam-blocking powers that some worry could be used to silence activists.
Aside from those specific proposals, online-freedom advocates are inherently skeptical of the ITU’s attempts to assert authority over the Internet, in part because the body is dominated not only by governments but also officials from incumbent telecoms, which are both generally seen as the open Internet’s natural enemies. Telecoms in developing countries, for example, want to treat the Internet more like international phone calls, charging online firms like Google high fees to pay for network upgrades and maintenance.
UPDATE: [Dec. 3] The level-headed Sam Biddle over at Gizmodo marked the first day of the Dubai conference by pointing out that try as they might, Russia, China and the Gulf States have no chance of succeeding with their online power grab for a number of reasons. First off the ITU operates on a consensus basis, meaning that basically every one of the 193 countries represented have to sign off on a proposal for it to be adopted. Secondly — and perhaps more importantly — the ITU has no enforcement mechanism, so even if it decides that something should happen, it has no way to actually make it happen.
Biddle imagines the conversation thusly:
ITU: “Hey, United States, almost all of us agree that ICANN shouldn’t be in charge of this important function of the Internet. Hand it over.”
ITU: “Well, all right.”
So we can hop down off the barricades and go back to playing Fruit Ninja.