Thursday, December 06, 2012

Online Freedom: Who Should Control What?

Delegates from 193 countries are meeting in Dubai to discuss the future of the internet. They will be negotiating a new International Telecommunications Treaty - which has not been updated since 1988.

The main debate at the conference is over internet freedom. The US and Europe want less internet regulation, while countries like Russia and China are accused of wanting more.

But the possibly bigger question of who controls the internet is also in play. The US in particular is criticised for dominating the way the internet is run.

Since 1947 a UN body called the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has been in charge of international technical standards.

Delegates from 193 countries have regulated everything from radio frequencies to satellite orbits. Their mission is to make sure networks and technologies easily interconnect. But according to internet giant Google, the ITU could be about to take steps to reduce the free flow of information on the web.

"There is a mood to change the governance structure of the internet from one that is multi-stakeholder system to one that is inter-governmental. And I think the fear is that the internet repression and censorship that is already going and the throttling of the speed of communication and widespread surveillance in certain countries will be legitimised if they change the system."
- Richard Rogers, University of Amsterdam
It says if proposals being heard at the ITU conference in Dubai are accepted, there will be an increase in censorship and national regulation.

But other countries censor content on the internet as well.

Known as the 'Great Firewall of China', the People's Republic has perhaps the world's most impressive example of online control. In addition to banning social networking sites, China also has tens of thousands of monitors who snoop and often hack into people's emails.

Following protests in 2009, the Iranian government intensified its efforts to censor the web. It has rounded up and jailed bloggers and internet dissidents. The country also often shuts down access to the internet when it expects anti-government protests.

In Belarus, the government has also noticed the opposition's use of the internet. Websites are sometimes blacked out, opposition voices are monitored and the government even uses websites like Twitter to intimidate journalists and activists.

And last month, the United Arab Emirates showed where it stands on internet censorship. It issued a decree making it a crime to insult or criticise the country's leaders online.

We ask should limits be placed on the web? And if so, how and by whom? What does it all mean for freedom of speech online and is it being threatened with over-regulation?

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