In a closed-door meeting this weekend in Dubai, the telecommunications arm of the United Nations -- the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) -- plans to seize a big role in Internet governance.
The ITU is holding the World Conference on International Telecommunications from December 3-14 where countries will seek agreement about proposed revisions to the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITR), a legally binding international treaty signed by 178 countries, in a bid to expand the ITU's scope of power to oversee the Internet.
It would push regulatory control of the Internet's traffic and citizen access over to governments and away from organizations such as ICANN.
Leaked documents: Internet tolls and no private traffic
The treaty appears intent to solidify Internet infrastructure, encourage broadband rollout and investment, and ensure the integrity of emergency communication protocols.
It also would charge governments with the task of regulating its telcos' creation of national and communications charges -- another way to say, Internet tolls and taxes.
The meeting and its proposals are being withheld from public view.
A steady stream of leaked documents from Web site WCITleaks have the organisers in a defensive panic -- for reasons that make it clear that something's rotten at the U.N.
Created by researchers at George Mason University, WCITLeaks is soliciting and sharing copies of leaked draft documents.
In WCTIleaks document TD-64 (the anticipated final draft), the language states that countries will be granted the right to suspend their citizens' Internet access and telecom services partially or totally -- and that "member states" have the right to prohibit the anonymizing of traffic, forcing any identifying information masked for privacy reasons be made duly available to law enforcement agencies.
The ITU has strong backing of oppressive governments, including Russia and China.
Telcos make a power play?
In a June 2012 speech by ITU's Secretary-General, Dr. Hamadoun Toure said that telecom companies had the, "right to a return on [the] investment" of dealing with Internet congestion, and that the meeting and treaty would:
(...) address the current disconnect between sources of revenue and sources of costs, and to decide upon the most appropriate way to do so.
Interestingly, Dr. Alexander Kushtuev, WCIT Workgroup Preparation Chairman and ITU Deputy Director-General, works for Russia's largest national telecommunications operator, Rostelecom.
In June 2011, Vladimir Putin met with Toure, where the then-Russian Prime Minister reminded the Secretary-General that Russia co-founded the ITU, and made a few headlines when Mr. Putin stated that Russia intends to actively participate in, "establishing international control over the Internet using the monitoring and supervisory capabilities of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)."
Condemned in increasing numbers
This past weekend, a newly leaked WCTIleaks document revealed that the organizers are preparing a public-relations strategy to avoid public outcry by hiring consultants in an attempt and avoid the same global backlash that ultimately defeated SOPA, PIPA and CISPA.
Looking at the growing opposition online, they'll need all the PR strategists they can afford.
Fight for the Future, and Access Now -- in which both played a key role in decimating SOPA -- have launched the Web site. Supported by a video, the groups caution:
If some proposals at WCIT are approved, decisions about the Internet would be made by a top-down, old-school government-centric agency behind closed doors.
Some proposals allow for access to be cut off more easily, threaten privacy, legitimize monitoring and blocking online traffic. Others seek to impose new fees for accessing content, not to mention slowing down connection speeds.
One week ago, Google created its Take Action petition and campaign, pushing the covert meeting into wider Internet awareness saying that the treaty threatens the "free and open Internet."
The ICU responded to Google over the weekend in a fairly incomprehensible blog post.
Prior to this, opposition has ranged in fits and starts as far apart as Vint Cerf's piece in The New York Times to hacktivist collective Anonymous -- and the U.S. government has recently confirmed it will oppose placing control of the Internet into the hands of the United Nations. (Edit: The European Parliament has now added its collective voice to the opposition.)
In comments, Toure continues to drop hints about global unhappiness with ICANN, but backs away from categorically stating the ITU will take control away from ICANN, instead saying vaguely the two organizations, "can work together."
What's truly disturbing to me is that Toure's speech made it clear that the ITU doesn't believe that setting financial barriers for access to Web sites or traffic, or that countries who censor their citizens' Internet access would in any way restrict the free flow of information.
To me, this means that once again, another clueless yet extremely powerful organization is trying to take control of the Internet, while having no understanding about how core principles of the Internet actually make the Internet function effectively.
Or maybe they just don't care.
See also: The Internet Society has clear information about how this will impact the way people around the world use the Internet.