On December 3, representatives from 193 countries met in Dubai at the World Conference on International Telecommunications, organised by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a United Nations agency tasked with global telecommunications. They started deliberations on proposals that would change the way the Internet works today. These deliberations would probably have been finished by the time you are reading this. The proposed changes to the Internet may or may not have been accepted. Even if they are not accepted the fact that those proposals have been put in place in the first place itself is shameful and dangerous.
Though Dr Hamadoun Toure, the secretary-general of ITU, said before the start of the conference, “It is important to remember that when you talk of Internet freedom, most people in the world cannot even access the Internet. The Internet is the rich world’s privilege and ITU wants to change that. It is our global objective to assure that every citizen is connected no matter what their circumstance.” All noble words except the proposals that some of the member states came up with to achieve that goal are not just obstacles to the free growth of the Internet but also hinder personal freedoms like never before.
One of the main proposals is that all individual Internet users should be identified, thereby putting a stop to anonymity on the world wide web and thereby destroying one of its most basic principals. Another proposes that a ‘sender pays’ fee should be levied on the publishers of websites that are generating high levels of traffic in any given country. Which is saying if a lot of people are visiting YouTube in India, YouTube should pay the Indian government a fee. This will destroy another basic principle of the Internet called ‘net neutrality’, which states that “all Internet traffic is created equal”. And one of the most important proposals is that local governments should have control over the Internet. Not surprisingly these proposals have been put forward by countries like Kazakhstan, Russia, China, some Arab and African countries. Nothing surprising in that considering how those countries are run. But all these countries have a good ally in those proposals; India wants all those proposals to be implemented.
Understandably, Internet users are annoyed and alarmed at these proposals. Vint Cerf, considered one of the ‘fathers of the Internet’, along with many partners like Google and Microsoft is fighting against these proposals. He wrote in The New York Times: “The decisions taken in Dubai in December have the potential to put government handcuffs on the Net.” In India, people like Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Member of Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, are opposing those proposals, and are against Indian government’s support to those proposals. Speaking to CIOL, he said, “India’s stance has the potential of widespread abuse, overreach into Internet, including content regulation, and it denies any recourse to service providers, other affected parties or citizens from India”.
If these proposals are to be accepted, and if ITU is to have its way, it would be like many cases of ‘land grabbing’ that goes on in India. You put up the money, you develop the land, you build a house. But a local goon comes along, and takes over your land and dictates you terms. Except in this instance, the Internet does not belong to any one country or corporation. It is designed to be and is being used as a global network in which every citizen of the world is a stake holder and is entitled to his anonymity, freedom and net neutrality.