Officials representing 193 nations got together in Dubai yesterday to take part in a controversial UN conference on internet regulation, which the likes of Google and Microsoft are warning could lead to the implementation of stiffer regulations that would restrict online freedoms and privacy.
The talks are taking place under the UN’s International Telecommunications Union, which expressed its hopes that members will reach an agreement that will allow it to revise a decades old telecommunications treaty governing internet regulation around the world.
During the 11-day forum, each country will be given the opportunity to present its own proposals on how the internet should be governed, before a final vote is held. The ITU says that among the issues it hopes to tackle are internet security, and methods of expanding internet services and infrastructure within third world countries.
From the ITU’s description, one would be forgiven for thinking the meeting is largely innocuous, but according to Google, that assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. The search engine giant, which has long seen itself as the champion of internet freedoms and a defender of free speech, says that the forum could in fact provide repressive, authoritarian governments around the world with the opportunity they need to revoke internet freedoms and eliminate user anonymity.
Google’s response has been to launch an aggressive campaign to raise awareness of the danger, posting a message on its homepage asking for internet users’ support:
“Love the free and open Internet? Tell the world’s governments to keep it that way.”
The message links to a special page set up by Google asking for users to assist them in its campaign to preserve the freedom of the internet. In addition, the page incorporates an interactive map detailing the locations of all those who have signed up, together with a detailed outline of Google’s concerns about the UN gathering.
Chief among these is a proposal that would allow governments (repressive or otherwise) to suppress free speech online and possibly even cut off access to the internet at their own discretion, with no safeguards or accountability. Another proposal calls for the introduction of rules that could lead to tolls being levied on services such as YouTube, Skype and Facebook, in order for them to operate in certain countries. Google says that these measures would lead to only one thing – limiting the availability of online information, especially in poorer, third world nations.
Finally, Google is complaining bitterly that the conference is unfair, as only governments are allowed to express their opinions and vote on the proposals. Google believes that the companies and individuals that helped build the web should have their say on how its regulated, and points out that many of the governments attending the meeting have, shall we say, extremely questionable records when it comes to internet freedoms.
Together with its dedicated campaign page, Google has introduced the #freeandopen hashtag to promote awareness through Twitter, giving internet users another avenue to voice their support. To date, its campaign has attracted the support of almost two and a half million internet users.