You may not be interested in the internet but the internet is interested in you: the international scrap over cyber continues @ the ITU
10 Dec 2012|

At an ASPI national security lunch talk last week, Roger Wilkins, Secretary of the Attorney General’s Department, gave a wide-ranging talk that examined Australia’s national and international efforts to counter cyber crime. He warned against the temptation to create rules to govern the internet, despite the obvious temptation to do so. And, although he indicated that a ‘paradigm shift’ was required, he warned that the last thing any government should do is ‘gum up’ the internet as a source of innovation and free enterprise. His comments reflected a debate that is taking place within most nations and on the international stage (see my previous post): to what extent should a government or the international community have control over the internet?

This week is one of high activity as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) began hosting its two-week World Conference. While this might seem mundane, its significance is hard to underestimate. First established in 1865, the ITU creates worldwide standards, coordinates shared global use of the radio spectrum and improves the infrastructure of telecommunications. It has become the wing of the UN with prime responsibilities for information technologies. This is the first time that the ITU has overseen a major overhaul of telecommunication regulations since 1988, when it helped develop the current standards. Given the expansion of internet use and data volumes being exchanged between networks, the ITU wants to introduce internet governance rules. Some 124 input documents have been submitted by the 193 member states, with around 450 proposals under consideration. Many nations, including the US, Canada and a number of European states, are deeply concerned that the ITU is expanding its remit to cover the internet when it should confine itself to telecommunications. Of particular concern are security and spam issues, with the worry being that censorship or control of the web will become the norm.

The list of multinational online businesses that made robust statements ahead of the meeting is indicative of the magnitude of the decisions taking place. These include Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon and Google—which has been leading an aggressive online campaign to warn about the risks of increased Internet regulations:

Only governments have a voice at the ITU. This includes governments that do not support a free and open Internet. Engineers, companies, and people that build and use the web have no vote…The billions of people around the globe who use the Internet should have a voice.

Russia is one of the key supporters of the ITU process and of increasing its jurisdiction, and has tabled plans for equal rights between nations for managing the internet, which could potentially lead to increased online censorship (PDF). Viewed in combination with other proposals that opponents believe could be used in places such as Iran, China, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to justify crackdowns on bloggers and other restrictions, the issue becomes more potent and of concern to the wider public—are these the kinds of international regulations that we want to see in Australia and other liberal democracies?

There’s no doubting that Dr Hamadoun Touré, the ITU’s Secretary General, sits in the middle of a political battle, manifested in a discussion of internet governance. Rhetoric is running high, with one article in the New York Post taking aim at Touré personally while channelling the Cold War:

Then there’s the man who will be in charge of Dubai’s new rules as head of the ITU: Hamadoun Touré, a Soviet-trained graduate of Moscow Tech. That’s about as close to having a KGB plant run the Internet as you can get.

It’s not just states that are concerned; hacker groups have already attacked the ITU.

Australia’s head of delegation, Minister for Broadband, Communications, and the Digital Economy Senator Stephen Conroy, made it clear that he feels there’s no need for change in internet governance:

Australia does not believe a case has been made for change…the ITU should continue to focus on developing technical telecommunications standards that deal with the interoperability of public networks and capacity building.

The Australian position reflects that of the US, UK and many European nations. However, it would be intriguing to understand the positions of Australia’s near neighbours such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, the Philippines and Singapore.

The Australia in the Asian Century White Paper further demonstrates Australia’s commitment to working cooperatively on cyber issues within the Asian region. Australia wants to keep the internet open and free of undue government regulation, and is working towards developing international norms of behaviours in cyberspace. The ITU conference provides an ideal opportunity to actively engage with Asian nations, as China is certainly ‘working the room’ at meetings like this. Australia might opt to step up and diplomatically influence a debate which will directly impact its own population as well as its neighbours.

The preliminary jockeying at the ITU highlights the tensions between regulation and liberalism in the internet age. The outcome could affect billions of internet users. Of course, this is only the beginning of a very long process, and for any of the proposals to be accepted, they’ll need the support and ratification of a majority of nations—that’s unlikely to happen in a two-week period. What’s certain is that, while the discussions are taking place, the internet and its users won’t stop. And, regardless of what measures are introduced, users will find ways to circumvent them, as has been the very essence of the internet from its early days. Imposing rules upon a system which creates its own is a very tricky business indeed.

Tobias Feakin is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user BotheredByBees.