Between December 3 and 14, the International Telecommunications Union, the United Nations body which controls international telephony, is holding a Conference. Attendees at the Conference will, in general, be government telecoms ministers from the 193 countries that make up the UN, with decisions being passed on a simple majority, one country one vote basis (there is no right of veto). The purpose of the Conference, which will be held behind closed doors, is to review the International Telecommunications Regulations, which were last established in 1988, and which the ITU does from time to time.
In 1988, the internet was much less established than it is now. ARPAnet (the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network largely developed to assist the US Defense Department to co-ordinate US universities and research labs), and the forerunner of the internet, had fewer than 100,000 hosts and the world wide web was not to be developed (by Tim Berners-Lee) until 1990. Now, within 25 years, there are something like 35 internet users for every 100 people right across the globe (and over double that proportion in developed countries) – a worldwide total of around 2.5 billion people.
The process for the Conference being run by the ITU is, however, extremely opaque. Papers drawn up in preparation for the Conference are not publicly disclosed and the ITU’s Governing Council has rejected a call from Dr. Hamadoun Touré, the body’s own Secretary General, that all stakeholders should be given open access to all the documentation being developed. Nevertheless, some information as to what WCIT 2012 will be discussing has leaked out under pressure from civil society, and the International Trade Union Confederation (the worldwide union confederation), has become increasingly exercised not only about the lack of transparency in the process of reviewing the internet, which the UN had previously declared to be most appropriately governed by a multi-stakeholder approach, but also about some of the proposals for the new Regulations. In its view, some countries are using the Conference to seek to undermine the currently free, open and inherently democratic governance model currently enjoyed by the internet.
In particular, a group of countries headed by China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran are proposing amendments to the existing Regulations which would require companies to monitor all internet traffic through deep packet inspection and to co-operate with security concerns by blocking undesirable traffic. Evidently, this is causing civil society a great deal of worry since such proposals would, if passed, undermine the net’s role in promoting democracy and would provide a powerful tool to countries with which to monitor civil society in close detail. Such techniques are already widely in use in authoritarian countries, but it is their potential extension to more open countries in the rest of the world, via the ITU’s International Telecommunications Regulations establishing a default position that government monitoring is acceptable, that provides an additional cause for worry as well as for action.
The ITUC has launched a campaign on this issue. The campaign largely focuses on awareness raising, as well as a petition. You can:
- view a short video featuring Sharan Burrow, ITUC General Secretary; Vint Cerf, computer scientist and ‘father of the internet’; and Paul Twomey, former Chief Executive of ICANN (the US private sector body which controls the internet domain naming system) from the launch here
- read a joint letter from the ITUC and Greenpeace International to Ban Ki Moon, UN Secretary-General, here
- understand the issues at stake via an informative and intelligent post on our own Trade Union Congress’s Touchstone blog by John Wood, its Campaign and New Media Officer, here
- sign the TUC’s own petition in support of the ITUC’s campaign here.
The regulation of telecoms, including the internet, is clearly a concern of close proximity to Prospect, while the lack of transparency in a UN body, as well as the disturbing nature of some of the proposals about to be debated, is a significant concern to us as a part of civil society but to which also, we should note, we may be subject as trade unionists. And if not us, then our fellow trade unionists fighting for labour rights in other countries worldwide. Trade union rights are indeed human rights.
Please sign the TUC petition – your actions in doing so will not only help preserve the character of the internet and support open access to data and information for people worldwide, but will also tell the UN that conducting business in secrecy and behind closed doors is not acceptable.