This week, delegations from around the world are gathering in Dubai for the World Conference on International Telecommunications, or WCIT. There, interested parties from 193 countries will vote on updates to an international treaty that could change the very nature of the global Internet and the World Wide Web.
Surprising to no one, the chatter surrounding WCIT has been nothing short of panic. The likes of Google and Mozilla, the U.S. House of Representatives, the White House, and the European and Australian Parliaments have all come out against changes to the way the Internet rules are set up. So have public advocacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the Internet Defense League, Public Knowledge, and more than 1,000 other organizations, all of which have issued warnings that WCIT could be the end of the online world as we know it.
Their reasons for worry are legitimate: The WCIT is a (mostly secret) meeting of governments, member states of a United Nations body called the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Many of these governments seek to gain more power over the Internet, power that is currently wielded by the U.S. More government means more regulation, which means a less free and open global Internet for all of us. That’s the theory, and it’s a perfectly understandable one.
Vint Cerf, a “father of the Internet,” and Google’s “chief Internet evangelist,” has become the face of the ITU opposition movement. He had this to say in a recent op-ed for CNN:
Several authoritarian regimes reportedly propose to ban anonymity from the web, making it easier to find and arrest dissidents. Others have proposed moving the responsibilities of the private sector system that manages domain names and Internet addresses to the United Nations. Yet other proposals would require any Internet content provider, small or large, to pay new tolls in order to reach people across borders.
The upshot? The next garage-based phenomena would face a steep and probably insurmountable financial hurdle in its effort to become the next YouTube, Facebook or Skype.
This basically sums up the controversy surrounding WCIT and the ITU. But here’s the thing: Most of these problems are not anything the average Web user in the United States should concern himself with. These are, literally, someone else’s problems.
Unlike the Stop Online Privacy Act, which sought to block access to foreign-based websites in the U.S., the censorship Cerf and others warn of will not happen in the United States. Instead, it will happen to those who live under oppressive regimes around the world.
And the so-called tolls on Internet traffic – a knotty issue called “sender party pays” – would mean companies like Google, Facebook, and presumably any other high-volume website, would have to pay to provide access to users in countries that adopt this model. But again, this would only limit access to other people; namely, people in developing nations whose “worth” to companies that rely on advertising revenue is lower than the cost of providing them with access.
“The eyeballs of a rural person in Thailand to an advertiser is probably not that valuable,” former U.S. Ambassador David Gross, who is involved in the WCIT negotiations, told me earlier this year. “So as a result, what [sender party pays] imperils, among other things, is the ability of poor people in developing world countries to have access to content on the Internet.”
None of this is to say that the complaints against the WCIT are illegitimate, or that it benefits the average person anywhere. As Neelie Kroes, Vice President of the EU Commission responsible for Europe’s “Digital Agenda,” recently tweeted, “The Internet works, it doesn’t need to be regulated by ITR treaty. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Nor am I advocating that those of us in the U.S. just kick back and ignore what’s happening at WCIT. If any of the worst proposals make it through the gamut, they will, at some point, come back to bite us all in the ass. It might come in the form of greater fees for Internet services, frustrating changes in the domain name system, or simply a lack of access to innovations created outside our borders.
Some A-hole governments may use the WCIT as an excuse to break the Internet as it works today so they can try to put it back together in a shape they prefer. We should fight back against this.
That said, I will leave you with two things to think about: First, oppressive regimes already have the power to censor dissident speech, stifle innovation, and sometimes even shut down the Internet altogether. There is little any of us can do to stop that. Second, the worst-case scenarios that everyone fears will almost certainly not happen. Changes made at the WCIT will be by consensus, not a majority-wins vote. And the U.S. has a whole lot of power over what will and will not get through at WCIT, especially with a horde of allies from Europe and Asia standing beside us.
So sign the petitions, send out tweets, and bombard your friends with speeches about how horrible the whole WCIT thing is. But remember: The U.S. Web will be fine. It’s the rest of the Web that hangs in the balance.