Sunday, June 03, 2012

Free Speech on the Internet, Except in Cases...


Last Wednesday's Free State Foundation seminar, "The Multi-Stakeholder Privatized Internet Governance Model: Can It Survive Threats From The UN?", was educational concerning threats to the current "bottoms up" privatized Internet governance system posed by the upcoming WCIT 2012 international conference in Dubai. In short, other countries may put forward proposals at WCIT 2012 this December that could alter the current multi-stakeholder Internet model by revising the existing international telecommunications regulations in ways that would sanction inter-governmental control over important aspects of the Internet.
The WCIT – "World Conference on International Telecommunications" – is run by the International Telecommunications Union, a United Nations treaty organization with 193 member countries. Each of these countries has one vote at ITU conferences. 
At FSF's seminar, the nature of the potential changes to Internet governance, and their implications, were ably explained by the panel, which included FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell and Richard Beaird, the U. S. State Department's Senior Deputy Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy. I was pleased, and grateful, that C-SPAN broadcast the event live, and you can watch the C-SPAN video here. The video is an excellent resource for understanding what's at stake in the upcoming WCIT. 
I just want to emphasize one point here. At the seminar, I suggested that, in addition to changes that could impact matters such as the assignment of domain names, technical standards, and the like, some proposals, if adopted, could impact the free flow of information that, for the most part, currently characterizes the Internet. 
Google's Rick Whitt provided an example of one such proposal that, in effect, would confer explicit authority on governments to censor speech. Rick quoted a Russian proposal that would alter the current text of the ITU regulations so they would state: 
Member States shall ensure unrestricted public access to international telecommunication services and the unrestricted use of international telecommunications, except in cases where international telecommunication services are used for the purpose of interfering in the internal affairs or undermining the sovereignty, national security, territorial integrity and public safety of other States, or to divulge information of a sensitive nature.” 
Obviously, this is a case in which the "exception" might easily be invoked to swallow the rule. If this formulation were to be embodied in the ITU treaty, repressive regimes around the world – no need to name them here, and there are far too many – would be given a ready cover for censoring speech they would prefer to keep from their citizens. 
Now I am not na├»ve. I understand that any country, if it wishes to do so, can attempt, through technological means, brute force, or otherwise, to censor Internet speech within its borders, for example, by requiring Internet providers within the country to use government-sanctioned and government-monitored speech filters. Some repressive regimes will try to censor Internet speech whether or not the ITU regulations are revised along the lines proposed by Russia. 
But that is not the point. 
Rather the point is that presently the ITU regulations do not sanction governmental interference with communications on the basis that a communication's purpose is to interfere "in internal affairs" or "divulge information of a sensitive nature" or the like. Under the Russian proposal, the regulations would do so explicitly, providing a nation inclined to inhibit the free flow of information and to suppress free speech cover for doing so. 
This is just one example – but an important one – concerning why the U.S. government, and private organizations representing all facets of civil society, should work hard to prevent proposals from being adopted at WCIT, or at other future ITU conferences, that would confer governmental control over the Internet. Commendably, this is an issue that enjoys broad bipartisan support in the U.S. 
As long as governments keep their hands off and do not seek to control or manage the Internet, it will remain a marvelous instrument for facilitating free expression and the free flow of ideas here and around the world.