Fearing Web Restrictions, Google Launches Campaign Against U.N. Conference

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November 20, 2012 9:25 a.m.

Updated 5:00 p.m. Eastern, Tuesday, November 20

Google is wary of the United Nations. Specifically, the search giant is concerned that an upcoming United Nations conference designed to update a series of telecommunications regulations from the 1980s that account for the Internet could end up restricting Web freedom and openness.

That’s at least the message conveyed by #FreeAndOpen, a new online campaign launched by Google on Tuesday, which asks users around the globe to pledge their support for “the free and open Internet,” and sign a petition with the following pledge:

“A free and open world depends on a free and open Internet. Governments alone, working behind closed doors, should not direct its future. The billions of people around the globe who use the Internet should have a voice.”

Google also posted the following video to drum up support for its cause:

The “work behind closed doors,” that Google refers to in the petition is actually the World Conference on International Telecommunications 2012 (WCIT 12), a long-planned meeting of the UN’s telecom agency, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which includes representatives of all of the 193 countries that make up the UN, along with 700 representatives from the private sector, academia and other non-governmental organizations.

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WCIT 12, a two-week long period of negotiations set to take place in Dubai from December 3 through the 14th, is being held so that the ITU members can finally update regulations on international telecommunications systems last agreed to in 1988, well before the tremendous growth and commercialization of the Internet. At the time, regulations of cable television across borders and international phone calls were the big issues that countries were looking to resolve. They did so in a series of documents known as the International Telecommunciations Regulations (ITRs).

But now the ITU member states and the ITU General Secretariat, the agency that oversees and coordinates them, have decided that there is a need to reach consensus around how governments can and should regulate the Internet — if at all — across their borders.

That’s what the WCIT 12 conference is meant to hammer out: Just what powers governments should have over the Internet, or more specifically, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), the companies like Time Warner Cable and Comcast and Verizon in the U.S. that sell Internet service to customers, as well as the numerous other companies that exist on top of that service such as Web giants like Google.

In fact, there’s quite a range of opinion and disagreement from world governments over just what powers they and the UN itself should have over these companies and the Internet connections themselves, at least as expressed in the proposals from said governments made public by the ITU on its website and leaked online earlier this year. Some governments — namely Russia, Iran, China, Arab states and Eastern European states — advocate updates that would give them the right and blessing, or auspices of the UN ITU, to do everything from monitoring networks for cybersecurity threats and spam (which could include individual users’ content without express consent or government order) to metering Internet traffic and international borders similar to how international phone calls are billed. The latter could potentially result in de-facto taxes on heavy trafficked websites like Google and Facebook.

Not surprisingly, given the diversity of views on the subject, the ITU WCIT 12 has been a slow-burning and largely overlooked source of controversy in political and diplomatic circles all year long.

U.S. lawmakers — namely Congressional Republicans — have for instance introduced several resolutions asking the U.S. State Department, which will represent America at the conference, to fight any proposals to govern the Internet, and to rally the support of other like-minded, “freedom-loving” nations.

The State Department has for its part told TPM that it too is concerned about some of the more seemingly draconian proposals submitted to the WCIT 12 and will protest any measures that would focus on governing or filtering Internet content, or any that would “impair the Internet as we’ve come to know it,” as U.S. ambassador Philip Verveer explained to TPM.

The UN’s ITU Secretariat has over the year repeatedly denied that there will be any attempt of an “Internet takeover” by it or other nations at the conference.

At the same time, the ITU has openly moved to position itself as more of a force and intermediary when it comes to international cybersecurity measures, especially in the wake of the reported revelations that the U.S. and Israeli governments worked on the Stuxnet and Flame malware strains specifically to cripple Iran’s nuclear efforts.

The Flame malware was discovered on Middle Eastern computers in May by Russian cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Labs as Kaspersky was looking into a different malware strain at the behest of the ITU, though the agency denies it ever hired Kaspersky to do so.

The ITU itself has a spin-off organization dedicated wholly to cybersecurity called ITU IMPACT, of which Kaspersky is a part. In a profile of the firm’s founder Eugene Kaspersky earlier this year, Wired magazine reported that he had close ties to the Kremlin and specifically the FSB, the Russian spy organization that succeeded the KGB.

That said, the ITU has again repeatedly stressed its role is that of a coordinating body, claiming it has no bearing on what new regulations get adopted, or not, at the WCIT 12. The ITU has also repeatedly noted that any new regulations or updates must be agreed to by consensus, not even a vote itself of the ITU member states.

Late update: Asked about which specific proposals Google is concerned with, a Google spokesperson released the following statement to TPM: “More than 100 organizations from 50+ countries have raised concerns about an upcoming closed-door meeting in December in Dubai, where governments will consider proposals to increase regulation and censorship of the Internet. People can learn more about the issue on our website — and if they choose to do so, can pledge their support for a free and open Internet.”

Second late update: Google developer advocate Tim Bray posted a note on his Google Plus profile commenting on the new Google campaign, writing: “A few months ago, I’d thought that the ITU folks could be safely ignored…But recently, smart people here at Google are actually looking worried, and asking us to pass the word along. I still find it hard to believe this could get any momentum, but I’d sure hate to wake up one morning and find out I’d been wrong.”

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