This op-ed by GNI Independent Chair Jermyn Brooks originally appeared in the International Herald Tribune, the Global Edition of the New York Times, on December 6, 2012.
A chorus of human rights groups, diplomats, companies and technologists has achieved something remarkable. They are shining a media spotlight on the most boring international conference you have never heard of: an obscure gathering of governments called the World Conference on International Telecommunications, or W.C.I.T.
Campaigners and companies alike are concerned by the prospect of authoritarian states using the opaque processes of diplomacy to grab greater control over the Internet. Governments, now meeting in Dubai, will update a global telecommunications treaty under the auspices of a U.N. agency, the International Telecommunication Union, or I.T.U. But in a world where most governments have long since lost their monopoly over cross-border communications, top-down structures are not suitable forums for making difficult decisions about Internet policy.
Decentralized by design, the Internet is a network-of-networks, much of which is built and operated by the private sector. As the Internet’s social, economic and political significance has grown, so have government efforts to control it. Some governments urge that the telecommunications treaty, last updated in 1988, should be expanded to support those efforts.
From my perspective as a free expression and privacy advocate, the most problematic of the proposals to be presented in Dubai concern topics like cybersecurity, cybercrime and online identification. Expanding the treaty to address these challenges would begin to bring the Internet under the purview of the I.T.U. Some proposals imply taking away authority from the variety of venues where Internet governance currently takes place — a constellation of technical standards bodies and other organizations that include more than just governments in their decision-making processes. Unlike governments, which tend to prioritize their own political interests when making policy, the groups involved share a general commitment to maintaining the technical efficiency of the Internet. They also use transparent processes that are open to scrutiny.
Many governments, companies and civil society groups, particularly from developing countries, feel that they are insufficiently represented in the Internet governance ecosystem. The Internet was developed in the United States, and the existing governance institutions like the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers and the Internet Engineering Task Force often include greater participation from companies, governments and individuals in the developed world. These institutions should do better at reaching out to constituencies across the global community. Individuals and governments should join them and work to improve them.
As advocates for a free and open Internet come together in Dubai to push back against the most alarming proposals, they should also work together to find solutions and seek reforms that would ensure a genuinely inclusive approach to governing the Internet.
The conference is just one in a number of venues where Internet policymaking will be contested. At other international gatherings, governments will continue to push an agenda of greater control over Internet. We have already seen this with the International Code of Conduct for Information Security proposed to the U.N. General Assembly by Russia, China, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
It is a testament to the power of activists, companies and technical experts that the human rights implications of international telecommunications regulations are receiving attention from policymakers. But in an era in which many multinational technology companies have global footprints that rival diplomatic services, and where an NGO campaign can mobilize as many constituents as a national politician, participation by these groups should not be the exception to international diplomatic practices.
The recent U.N. Human Rights Council resolution affirming that the same rights that people enjoy offline also apply online was, in part, the product of extensive advocacy by voices from the global north and south alike. This was an important step that shows the positive potential for international cooperation on human rights and the Internet.
As a growing number of governments have recognized, we should seek to empower an inclusive set of stakeholders from outside government to participate in policy debates when considering the Internet. The growing significance of the Internet to development, commerce and human rights requires nothing less.
Importantly, the delegates in Dubai have chosen to open some portions of the conference to the public. This could be the first step toward lasting change. Activists and innovators alike have found common ground on the importance of human rights standards, stakeholder collaboration and transparency as minimum standards for future treaty negotiations. They must make their voices count, beginning but not ending in Dubai.
Jermyn Brooks is the Independent Chair of the Global Network Initiative.