U.N. WCIT-12 makes Syrian Internet blackout 'trivial' everywhere

U.N. WCIT-12 makes Syrian Internet blackout 'trivial' everywhere

Summary: If the ITU's treaty is signed into law at WCIT-12 in Dubai this month, its new Internet governance rules will make Syria's Internet blackout a "trivial" and legally supported maneuver for every country in the world.


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. 

Nothing more.

In this light, it is no wonder the ITU has strong backing of oppressive governments, including Russia and China.

Topics: Government, Fiber, Outage, Telcos, China

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  • Oppressive governments of Russia and China

    At least dont put people into prison for torrenting movies or fine them with millions of $$$. What about free government of America?
    • Umm, yes they do.

      You just don't hear about it. Because they also control the press. Of course, the American press is ideologically unified in America, so there are a lot of ugly things happening in the U.S. you don't hear about because our press actually likes those particular tyrannies.
      • actually, no.

        China is not a signatory to the international copyright treaty that would require them to protect American copyright to the extent that US law requires. "Bootleg" copies of blockbuster movies are often sold openly in public markets with no prosecution or fines.

        But I wouldn't expect someone to know that who lumps The Wall Street Journal and MSNBC together as "ideologically unified."
        Johan Baumeister
        • Well, obviously...

          Because pirating American stuff does not hurt Chinese interests. In fact, it helps the PRC in many ways.

          First, it gives the government leverage over American companies. Each American company that wants to stop pirating in China has to go setup shop over there, and cooperate with (pay off) government officials, who will be happy to shut down pirates for the right price. What do you think Microsoft does?

          Second, it keeps the sheep happy in their communist la-la land. You're less likely to gripe and complain about crappy living conditions, governments that don't represent the people, human rights abuses and inequalities, when you have access to cheap entertainment.

          Also, I'd like to see you find a "bootleg" documentary of the Tiananmen Square protests being sold openly in public markets there. As I said, China will immediately prosecute anyone who hurts their own interests. Hurting American interests does not hurt their interests.

          Russia, besides supposedly no longer being communist, is not much different. Russia will quickly shutdown a pirate without even a pesky court hearing like would be required in the U.S. (like they did with AllofMP3), so long as it is in their own interests.
  • False Premise

    Violet, how you reach the conclusion that WCIT12 would trivialize what Syria has done is not clear to me. Governments already have all the authority they need and WCIT12 will not change that, if anything aims to strengthen freedom of expression and reaffirm Art. 33 of ITU constitution as well as Art. 19 of the International Covenant of Human Rights (which also includes provisions for restrictions to communications, a fact that is often overlooked). You like to portray ITU as secretive - yet we have engaged governments for four years in this process and the TD64 document has been public on our website since it was completed in July. All members (which includes for instance Google-owned Motorola, Internet Society, Apple, Microsoft, Cisco, Verizon etc. etc. etc.) have access to all documents and are free to share them with whom they wish and how they wish. As a member driven organization this is how we operate, it may not be perfect but it is not secretive. And, please remember 'the ITU' is 193 member states, so anything that 'ITU' would 'sign into law' would have to be agreed by all members, including the US - this is how intergovernmental organizations work to achieve agreement, policy harmonization and technical interoperability; a responsibility not yet assigned to large corporations.
    • thankyou

      what a well written and thought out response, I learnt more from you than the original article.

    • You made some sense until

      You threw in the stupid corporation remark. You do realize that a corporation can't do jack squat to you without a government backing them up. Any issues you have with a corporation are actually issues you should have with a government, but you have been successfully propagandized into thinking governments are beneficent, despite all evidence to the contrary staring you in the face.
    • Not secretive?

      You decided to host this conference in Dubai of all places. Not really open to the common individual who uses the Internet in their daily life. As well, if you actually did support openness and transparency, you would open up the ability for people to read the documents regarding WCIT-12. As of this writing, the contents are restricted to TIES users.


      If you actually did care, these documents would be open for everyone, so they could see what was being discussed.
  • Get Real

    IYU Agreement or not, any country has the right (self-appointed or not) to cut communications of any type within their borders.
    You are making an issue of nothing.
  • Sad, but not surprised

    I'm not going into how the UN and it's agencies have been perverted by politics to uselessness, or how efforts to maintain old power structures but look democratic have blown up. That's all obvious.

    But the truth is this was going to happen. The Arab Spring experience just put the spurs to the wishes of a lot of the UN's membership (remember, the organization may claim to be democratic in the most simple sense, but many of the governments involved are definitely not (and some seeming to forget that idea at times)) that realized the Internet is a risk.

    Funny, we will all be lamenting that we said everything was going "on the Net". And now, virtually all information dissemination has migrated there. Radio is a shell of itself, and newspapers are disappearing. TV is either opinion-driven cable channels or "headline" nightly news. So that leaves the Internet.

    But the Internet is really like a road, water system, electricity system, etc. There has to be a built out and distributed system to carry it and manage it. In the end, that is no different to a country than roads that cross their borders, pipelines carrying supplies in and out, the continental power grid and so forth. So no wonder the countries want to control the infrastructure (or have their industry controlling the infrastructure in their country). And with it comes everything we don't like. But it WAS going to eventually happen.

    And it is not about dissent or democracy. Eastern Europe blew up without any sign of a tweet, and Russia has seemed to slide backwards a bit post-Internet. China builds a huge amount of the stuff we all surf with, but the country is no closer to what a lot think of as freedom. Radio still gets alternate news out a lot better in many places than the Web, and finally, remember it was smuggled-in cassettes that aided in the demise of the shah. And we threw a lot of that away in favor of the all-powerful Internet. In the end, if it happens, it's shame on us.

    We forgot what worked in the past, and we didn't pay attention while we were twittering, shopping and facebooking away. No surprise.