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Fighting for freedom

A UN agency wants to give States the power to censor the internet.

india Updated: Aug 24, 2012 20:54 IST

In horror movies, the scariest moments usually come from the monster you can’t see. So the same goes for real life, or at least online life. Over the past few years, governments have been clawing back freedoms on the internet, turning an invention that was designed to emancipate the individual into a tool for surveillance and control. In the next few months, this process is set to be enshrined internationally, amid plans to put cyberspace under the authority of a largely secretive and obscure UN agency. If this succeeds, this will be an important boost to States’ plans to censor the web.

The internet, as originally envisaged, was borderless. In theory, anyone could find out information anywhere and communicate with anyone. The demarcation between free expression and data and identify privacy on the one hand, and the State’s right to security on the other, is continually debated, partly due to technological advances.

One of the most vigorous places for debate has been the Internet Governance Forum, which, since its founding in 2005, has brought together governments, private sector firms, academics and members of civil society. This year’s meeting in November takes place intriguingly in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, a country with a particularly poor record on free expression and suppression of dissent.

What matters is transparency and inclusivity. If the internet is to be governed more cohesively, then it should not be left to governments alone. There has never been a central authority, and the internet has flourished in spite of (or perhaps because of) its decentralised governance model.

The reverse is now in prospect. In December in Dubai, a body that has existed for 150 years but few outside narrow industry circles have heard of, is seeking to take control of the internet. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a UN organisation, aims to add the internet to its existing regulatory roles. Its strongest supporters include regimes such as China, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, who submitted a proposal last September to the UN general assembly for an “international code of conduct for information security”.

These countries, and others of their ilk, have three main goals for the Dubai summit and beyond: an assertion of national sovereignty over cyber communication; a clampdown on anonymity and encryption; and a change in global governance. Official preparations for the ITU are clouded in secrecy, as is the organisation’s standard practice, but information has been coming out via WCITleaks.org, a website created by two techies to publish leaked documents for the meeting. All the big decisions by the ITU are taken in meetings in which only governments can take part. Netizens have been shut out from this process.

Since its inception, the internet has been dominated by the US, both government, corporations, civil society groups and users. But access to high-speed internet via mobile will transform access to information in developing countries in coming years.

The internationalisation of the internet is inevitable, and good. The question is not which countries are in charge, but where the power resides within countries. Control is always the first instinct of the State. The ITU summit in December marks just the start of the battle between those who wish to keep the internet (relatively) free and those who will do everything in their power to reverse the process.