If the U.N.'s World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) meeting is successful, run by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), it will make Syria's recent unprecedented Internet shutdown a legally supported maneuver for every country in the world.
Now that Syria's Internet access has resumed, technical experts at Renesys explain that a government-forced Internet blackout can only happen under certain conditions:
The key to the Internet's survival is the Internet's decentralization — and it's not uniform across the world. In some countries, international access to data and telecommunications services is heavily regulated.
There may be only one or two companies who hold official licenses to carry voice and Internet traffic to and from the outside world, and they are required by law to mediate access for everyone else.
Under those circumstances, it's almost trivial for a government to issue an order that would take down the Internet.
These are the exact conditions that ITU's WCIT-12 in Dubai intends to set in place with its legally-binding, U.N.-backed global telecommunications treaty, beginning Monday -- despite enormous opposition.
It will give regulatory control of the Internet over to governments, and pull it away from organizations such as the non-profit organization Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).
Implementation and details will be hammered out in a debate run by the U.N.'s little-known, secretive telecommunications arm, the ITU.
Renesys delivered up a second sobering data point in their analysis of what conditions make it possible for Syria to cut its citizens off from the world.
It also describes how easy Internet shut-off is when you've got telecoms and governments working in close, exclusive concert to serve the Internet to populations:
Make a few phone calls, or turn off power in a couple of central facilities, and you've (legally) disconnected the domestic Internet from the global Internet.
Of course, this level of centralization also makes it much harder for the government to defend the nation's Internet infrastructure against a determined opponent, who knows they can do a lot of damage by hitting just a few targets.
In this reasoning, ITU's WCIT-12 not only makes Internet blackouts possible, perhaps trivial, for totalitarian governments.
It makes all countries far more vulnerable to attack than before WCIT-12, and makes one of the strongest cases I've ever heard for fighting tooth and nail to preserve, uphold and solidify the distributed Internet.
When Syria's Internet was shut down on Thursday, ITU's Secretary-General Dr. Hamadoun Toure took the opportunity to speak ahead of the WCIT-12 treaty meeting to actually say very little:
I wish to speak out in the strongest possible terms against any action that impedes access to communications.
I call on the government of Syria to investigate the reports today of problems accessing the internet and mobiles, and to take any remedial measures required to restore people's access.
At that point, it was widely-known -- and acknowledged by the U.S. State Department -- that Syria's government was the actor responsible for any "problems accessing the Internet" the people of Syria were facing.
It wasn't the first time. The last time Syria shut down its Internet was just in time for the largest anti-government protest of the uprising; Syria shut off the Internet and opened fire into protesters, killing over 72 people, while government forces assaulted towns seen as key to the demonstrations, killing even more.
In a June 2012 speech, Toure assured the world that the ITU's WCIT-12 so-called International Telecommunications Regulations (ITR) revisions, would in no way impede countries' intent or "rights" to act on its citizens in a similar manner:
It is true nonetheless that all countries impose some restrictions on various forms of speech, including telecommunications – for example to protect copyright owners and to prevent defamation.
Some countries go further and restrict the use of telecommunications for areas such as pornography, gambling, hate speech, negation of genocide, and even certain types of political speech.
Such restrictions are permitted by article 34 of the ITU’s Constitution, which provides that Member States reserve the right to cut off, in accordance with their national law, any private telecommunications which may appear dangerous to the security of the State, or contrary to its laws, to public order or to decency.
And the ITRs cannot contradict that provision, either.
Meanwhile, the ITU has been positioning WCIT-12 in public relations' terms as something that will ensure Internet access is guaranteed for underserved and marginalized populations:
The meeting and its proposals are being withheld from public view -- but especially in light of Syria's recent actions -- leaked document TD-64 (the anticipated final draft) contradicts the ITU's feel-good public relations.
According to the leaked TD-64, the only thing Syria would have done in violation of WCIT-12 was not telling ITU that they were going to shut off the Internet.
(55 7.1) If a Member State exercises its right in accordance with the Constitution and Convention to suspend international telecommunication services partially or totally, that Member States shall immediately notify the Secretary-General of the suspension and of the subsequent return to normal conditions by the most appropriate means of communication. [ARTICLE 7: Suspension of Services]
Make no mistake: the purpose of WCIT-12 is to redefine the Internet as a telecommunications entity and reshape the Internet's business plan so that it benefits ITU, telecom companies, and the governments these entities serve.
In this light, it is no wonder the ITU has strong backing of oppressive governments, including Russia and China.