Google is speaking out against a U.N. initiative that it claims is a threat to a “free and open internet.”
The internet works pretty well, all things considered, but governments from around the world are set to make some potentially big changes to its technical specifications and domain name system in December, under the auspices of the U.N.’s International Telecommunication Union. The ITU says the new treaty is required to ensure “the free flow of information around the world, promoting affordable and equitable access for all and laying the foundation for ongoing innovation and market growth.”
It sounds good, but Google is nonetheless firmly against the idea and has launched a “Take Action” site, asking its users to speak out against the treaty. It says that by wresting control of the internet from U.S. companies and handing them over to an agency whose members include censorious regimes like China and Iran, the new treaty could end up stifling freedom of expression and growth of the net.
“Not all governments support the free and open internet. There is a growing backlash on internet freedom. Forty-two countries filter and censor content,” the site says. “In just the last two years, governments have enacted 19 new laws threatening online free expression.”
The ITU hasn’t revealed the details of the proposed new agreement but WCITleaks has lifted the veil on some of them, including a Russian proposal that “member states have equal rights to manage the internet, including in regard to the allotment, assignment and reclamation of internet numbering, naming, addressing and identification resources and to support for the operation and development of basic internet infrastructure.” News service Russia Today reported that China and India support the Russian opinion that the ITU could assume greater control of the internet, while the U.S. representative has expressed support for existing institutions, saying in August that they “have functioned effectively and will continue to ensure the health and growth of the internet and all its benefits.”
ITU Secretary General Dr. Hamadoun Toure said he would “try to avoid” resolving disagreements at the December meeting with a majority vote, “because voting means winners and losers and you can’t afford that.” But University of Surrey Professor Alan Woodward said that approach carries with it the risk of “splintering the internet” if settlements can’t be reached.
“Some countries including Russia already restrict which sites can be accessed, but if people start going off and doing their own things in term of naming conventions and net addresses you could end up with different parts of the internet being unable to send traffic to each other,” he said. “It would be the online equivalent of not being able to make a telephone call from one nation to another.”
Google says it’s not trying to shut out regulatory agencies, it just wants to ensure an “open and inclusive” process for the future. “Governments alone should not determine the future of the internet. The billions of people around the globe that use the internet, and the experts that build and maintain it, should be included,” it wrote. “For example, at the Internet Governance Forum, anyone can attend and anyone can speak – a government official has the same influence as an individual.”
The International Telecommunication Union conference runs from December 3-14 in Dubai.