Keep government out of the Net

Under the guise of international control,states are trying to handcuff the Internet

Written by New York Times | Published: May 28, 2012 2:45 am

Under the guise of international control,states are trying to handcuff the Internet

The Internet stands at a crossroads. Built from the bottom up,powered by the people,it has become a powerful economic engine and a positive social force. But its success has generated a worrying backlash. Around the world,repressive regimes are putting in place or proposing measures that restrict free expression and affect fundamental rights.

Some of these steps are in reaction to the various harms that can be and are being propagated through the network. We must,however,take great care that the cure for these ills does not do more harm than good. The benefits of the open and accessible Internet are nearly incalculable and their loss would wreak significant social and economic damage. Against this background,a new front in the battle for the Internet is opening at the International Telecommunications Union,a United Nations organisation that counts 193 countries as its members. It is conducting a review of the international agreements governing telecommunications and aims to expand its regulatory authority to the Internet at a summit scheduled for December in Dubai.

Such a move holds potentially profound — and I believe potentially hazardous — implications for the future of the Internet and all of its users. At present,the ITU focuses on telecommunication networks and on radio frequency allocations rather than the Internet per se. Some members are aiming to expand the agency’s treaty scope to include Internet regulation. Each member gets a vote,no matter its record on fundamental rights — and a simple majority suffices to effect change. Negotiations are held largely among governments,with limited access for civil society.

When I helped to develop the open standards that computers use to communicate with one another across the Net,I hoped for,but could not predict,how it would blossom and how much human ingenuity it would unleash. What secret sauce powered its success? The Net prospered precisely because governments — for the most part — allowed the Internet to grow organically,with civil society,academia,private sector and voluntary standards bodies collaborating on development,operation and governance. In contrast,the ITU creates significant barriers to civil society participation. While many governments are committed to maintaining flexible regimes for fast-moving Internet technologies,some others have been quite explicit about their desire to put a single UN or other intergovernmental body in control of the Net.

The decisions taken in Dubai have the potential to put government handcuffs on the Net. To prevent that — and keep the Internet open and free for the next generations — we need to prevent a fundamental shift in how the Internet is governed.I encourage you to take action now: Insist that the debate about Internet governance be transparent and open to all stakeholders.

VINTON CERF is Google’s chief Internet evangelist

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