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November 16, 2012

Is Freedom of the Internet at Risk from UN Organization?

By Ed Silverstein, TMCnet Contributor

A global debate is likely to be waged over a forthcoming proposal from the United Nations over governance of the Internet.

On the one hand, free-speech activists, critics, who can’t stand the UN anyway, and a diverse coalition of others predict the UN International Telecommunications Union will push for censorship of one of the world’s most important forms of technology. On the other hand, some nations who dislike the uncensored form of the Internet show support for the UN initiative.

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The ITU’s authority over the Internet is expected to be discussed in Dubai in December at the World Conference on International Telecommunications, TMCnet said.

In the latest turn of events, Greenpeace and the International Trade Union Confederation accuse the UN of trying to take control of the Internet. A recent letter by the groups to the UN shows great concern about the lack of transparency in current proceedings regarding the Internet.

“The Internet represents one of the greatest engines for economic growth, development and transparency of information the world has ever seen. We have all come to rely upon free and unfettered access to its global reach. It has also become an indispensable tool for civil society in general, and international labor and environmental movements in particular,” the letter said. “We believe the Internet as we currently know it is at risk from an attempt by some governments to impose solely governmental control over this extraordinarily valuable global resource, which has until now benefitted from a unique system of multi-stakeholder direction.”

The letter has led to its own critics, with a recent report claiming the UN is not making these proposals, nor does it want to take over the Internet, and that the Internet is not really democratic.

Another more immediate topic of concern for many technology companies is that the European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association wants websites, such as Google or Facebook (News - Alert), to pay fees to network operators globally. The proposal is getting support from some nations in the developing world.

The proposals will be watched carefully by Internet companies. Ross LaJeunesse, global head of free expression and international relations for Google (News - Alert), warned that the new fee would be a "real threat to the future of the net as we know it today." He also contends the Internet’s success is due to involvement by the private sector and worries that changes by the UN could lead to authoritarian governments further limiting the free speech of their citizens. Nations in the Islamic world and China are among those governments that currently restrict Internet offerings.

Among the most vilified options that critics allege is that the UN is considering is to set up a “kill switch” for the Internet. One opponent, Alex Newman, writing for The New American, said one option calls for “handing complete control over the internet to the ITU.” The ITU would be able to block objectionable content, and there would be an end to “anonymity on the Web,” he predicts.

Concern is not just limited to United States. Canadian Civil Liberties Association Public Safety Programs Director Abby Deshman recently was quoted saying, “Freedom of expression is a basic human right and we would urge the countries that vote on this proposal to keep that in mind. Any proposal to control the Internet in any way, shape or form beyond the accepted laws of sovereign countries should be opposed outright.”

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Edited by Brooke Neuman
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