There’s a big story going around at the moment: the UN’s trying to take over the internet, or some variant of that. It’s all based on the current ITU proposals at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) currently taking place in Dubai… Lots of people – and I mean LOTS of people – are spreading this story of terror and danger. What’s at stake? Freedom of expression, anonymity, privacy, the whole openness of the internet etc etc…
…and yet I find it very difficult to get enthusiastically behind the fight, though I’m a fierce advocate of all of those things, and care deeply and passionately about the future of the internet as an open and free place. So why do I find it hard? Not because I agree with the ITU’s proposals – I don’t, I think they’re generally very bad and very unhelpful. There are, however, a few reasons:
- The prime characteristic of the ITU, as for so many UN bodies, is not an ability to actually do anything – let alone control or ‘take over’ anything. UN peacekeepers aren’t exactly brilliant at keeping peace, UN resolutions tend to be ignored by almost anyone who might be affected (ask anyone who pays attention to what goes on in Israel and Palestine), UN charters are aspirational at best. Whatever they do is unlikely to have any real effect – unless others want it to have an effect. The UN has some great strengths – and some of the UN bodies do excellent work – but for those strengths to come into play, they need the states involved to want them to work. The various Human Rights declarations, for example, help to set standards that were then applicable (and applied) worldwide…
- The ITU itself is far from the most competent of ‘secret’ organisations – for all their supposed secrecy, they just ‘gave’ the information on their DPI proposals to the excellent @Asher_Wolf when she asked them for it….
- What’s more, opposition to the ITU’s proposals is already huge – and if anyone imagines that the US or the EU will quickly acquiesce to whatever the ITU suggests, they really don’t understand international politics or international law
- To suggest that these ITU proposals offer the biggest threat to any of the issues concerned at the current moment. In every areas there are far greater threats, far closer to home.
- You want a threat to privacy? Look more closely at our own governments – what the UK government is proposing with the Communications Data Bill, that’s a REAL threat to privacy. What’s being revealed by the NSA whistleblower William Binney about surveillance in the US is a vastly, vastly worse than anything imagined by the ITU. Our governments don’t need the ITU in order to invade our privacy….
- You want a threat to anonymity on the internet? Look much more close to home – look at Facebook’s ‘real names’ policy, and the same for Google! Google are one of the strongest supporters of the fight against the ITU – and yet they still have what amounts to a real names policy for Google plus!
- You want a threat to freedom of expression? Look very hard at the ‘entertainment industry’, whose copyright trolls do more to block people’s expression than almost anyone else. They use notice and take down, they want ‘piracy’ sites blocked, they want to be able to block users from accessing the internet at all if there’s suspicion of piracy.
…and yet it’s the UN, and in particular the ITU that’s the target of the attacks. I don’t particularly like the ITU, and I don’t like these proposals one bit, but they won’t destroy the openness of the internet – because they won’t be able to make it happen. The others, on the other hand – our own governments, our ‘own’ industries, from Facebook and Google to the ‘entertainment’ industries, they’re already doing a lot to restrict all those freedoms that they claim to care so passionately about. Why? Because there’s money in it for them…. just as that’s the main real reason for their concerns about the ITU proposals – one part is to effectively levy a kind of tax on companies like Google. When money matters, it’s easy for industry to play the ‘good guys’. When money works the other way…..
No reason to be complacent – keep fighting!
All this ranting isn’t meant to stop people fighting the ITU proposals – we should! They should be opposed with vigour, because they’re not good at all. There are some distinctly worrying things about these proposals, and some particular risks attached. There’s the risk that they can be used to spread the idea that surveillance, that the removal of any effective form of anonymity, become the norm – and that they are allowed to spread as a result of this kind of thing. The UN is an ‘aspirational’ organisation, so ideas spread by it can be seen as somehow acceptable, and supportable – and used in some ways to ‘justify’ bad things that are happening.
This risk – of the ‘normalisation’ of this kind of thing – is something that we need to oppose, and oppose strongly. It is, however, something quite different from the suggestion that the UN is actually trying to take over the internet. That idea shouldn’t be overblown, or hyped up to the degree that it is. There’s an element in crying wolf about this too – if we keep going on about something being likely to ‘destroy the internet’ we’ll miss the real threats. I don’t want that to happen – and to an extent is is already happening, with ideas like Facebook and Google’s ‘real names’ policies not being subject to nearly sufficient scrutiny, and the copyright lobby still wielding enormously disproportionate power. Let’s get things a bit more in proportion….