Europe Joins Free Internet Chorus

The European Union announced on Friday that it would oppose attempts to increase regulation of the Internet at a United Nations conference that will take place next week in Dubai. This move comes as some countries have called for tighter rules on Web service providers and phone operators.

The International Telecommunication Union, an agency within the United Nations, is hosting the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) beginning Monday. The goal of the event is to update the International Telecommunication Regulations, a decades-old treaty. Representatives from 190 governments will meet in Dubai to hash out their differences, with some expected to push for tighter control of the Web.

“The WCIT-12 conference is going to be fascinating,” said Derek E. Bambauer, associate professor of law at the University of Arizona’s James E. Rogers College of Law. “It is in many ways going to refight the battles of the World Summit on the Information Society meetings.”

The European Commission did not respond to our request for further details.

Can the Web Be Reined In?

The first notable consideration is whether it is even possible to more tightly regulate the Web, even if a treaty were to call for it.

“You can legislate but not control it,” said Billy Pidgeon, senior analyst for Inside Network. “If someone breaks the law, you can take them to court, but you can’t really control the Internet.”

However, that may not stop some nations from trying.

“There is the control such as what Syria has done, where you shut it down — but it isn’t something that is a major cause for worry,” Pidgeon told TechNewsWorld.

“But there is no reason to do it,” he added. “There are probably industry groups and countries that will want to increase regulations, but it isn’t something anyone should want. As long as there are organizations that oversee the Internet that remain independent — and they should remain so — any sort of legislation is going to be ineffective anyway.”

Some nations may see it another way, though — such as “China, Russia, and other countries that are concerned about the impact of free speech on their governments,” said Josh Crandall, principal analyst at Netpop Research.

More Than Flame Wars

When individuals get into disputes online — whether in a forum, chat room or other discussion-type setting — things can get heated, resulting in so-called flame wars. Could a similar war of words erupt at the WCIT-12?

“There are a number of issues that could heat up,” said Bambauer. “I think there are likely to be three that will flare.”

The first could involve tariffs and fees for Internet connectivity, as a number of entities — such as ISPs and even some governments — could likely look to change the cost structure for connections, Bambauer told TechNewsWorld.

“Right now, both sides of the connection pay for bandwidth,” he noted. “Google pays for its connectivity — I pay for mine. But Google does not pay directly to access me or any other user. Telecommunications companies would like to charge more to companies whose content comprises a larger share of their traffic.”

This isn’t just an international political issue, Bambauer stressed, as implementing it could likely lead to significant shifts in costs and would require some architectural changes to put metering in place.

Governance Issues

The second issue that could come out of the conference is governance, which is likely to remain a perennial hot-button issue.

“Right now, governance is highly distributed, but the flashpoint around IP addresses and domain names is ICANN,” said Bambauer.

“ICANN emerged out of the initial fights over Internet governance in the 1990s and has had a complicated relationship with the U.S. government,” he explained. “It is perceived by many other countries as being too tied to the U.S. — effectively giving the U.S. a veto over governance decisions.”

At present, the leading contender to take over some or all of ICANN’s functions is the ITU, which Bambauer noted may want in on the Internet since its current role — coordinating the international telephone system — is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

“The ITU is seen by the U.S. and civil society groups, though, as too closely tied to governments and insufficiently concerned with other stakeholders,” explained Bambauer. “ICANN tries hard to paint itself as a multi-stakeholder institution, [while] the ITU is trying hard at the moment to downplay questions of Internet governance, which is a sure sign that it’s a live issue at WCIT.”

Censorship Controversy

The last issue is censorship, said Bambauer, with countries such as Russia recently having moved to tighten controls over free expression online.

“In many ways, this is also tied to governance, since censoring countries want deference to national governments over online controls, and also want to be able to frame questions of censorship as part of national security or information security initiatives,” he stressed.

Given the design of the Internet, this prompts the original question: whether any amount of regulation can actually resolve anything.

“From its birth, the Internet was designed to be a multi-nodal, resilient system, capable of withstanding nuclear war,” Crandall told TechNewsWorld.

“Data traveling through the Internet wants to be free, and many products have been developed to ensure the security of messages flowing through it,” he said.

“If a government thinks it’s necessary to restrict transmissions, it can set up roadblocks, as China has done with its Internet Great Wall,” Crandall emphasized. “But those systems tend to be the result of internal domestic policies rather than international agreements.”

So, will anything actually get accomplished, even as the EU has stated it opposition to regulation?

“In terms of the range of outcomes, I think it is ironically quite narrow,” said Bambauer. “I expect very little of substance to change. This is partly because of the nature of this type of international conference, and partly because there is no consensus on change — and partly because the U.S. still has a practical veto over many of these decisions, given its relationship with ICANN.”

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