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UN conference on internet oversight raises concern over censorship, restriction


Reporters use laptop computers, iPads and paper and pen to take notes during a panel discussion organized by NetCoalition about the Protection IP Act (PIPA) and the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) at the US Capitol on Jan. 19, 2012.


Chip Somodevilla

Tech giants and internet advocates are raising concerns ahead of the meeting of the United Nations' International Telecommunications Union (ITU) next week in Dubai.

Critics are concerned that changes proposed at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) could lead to efforts to censor the internet and stifle innovation, according to the Associated Press. Google raised the point that the conference's structure itself is flawed.

"Engineers, companies and people that build and use the Web have no vote," said Google in an online statement. "The billions of people around the globe that use the internet, the experts that build and maintain it, should be included" in the discussions, it said.

The Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed that said many of the UN's 193 member nations were opposed to the open, uncontrolled nature of the internet in its current form. "Having the internet rewired by bureaucrats would be like handing a Stradivarius to a gorilla," read the op-ed.

According to Forbes, the conference will consider revisions to a treaty called International Telecommunications Regulations that was last debated in 1988, before the advent of the internet.

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Some of the proposed amendments would bring the internet under ITU's jurisdiction, forever changing the structure and governance of the internet.

"Other proposals would, if adopted, give countries including Russia, China, and Iran UN sanctioned-authority to monitor and censor incoming and outgoing internet traffic under the guise of improving 'security,'" wrote Forbes.

Currently, there is no centralized control of the internet.

The Journal explained that the engineers and developers who built and operate the networks that make up the internet belong to committees and task forces that are coordinated by an international nonprofit called the Internet Society. This umbrella group houses the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Architecture Board and the Internet Research Task Force, as well as Icann, which assigns addresses and domain names.

Some critics worry that opening the possibility of the ITU controlling the internet would allow countries with more restrictive internet policies such as China, Iran and the Gulf Arab states to legitimize closer monitoring and restriction of the web under the guise of national security.

Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, which represents 175 million workers worldwide, said, "Repressive governments will have a UN treaty which allows them to control freedom of expression, to monitor everything any targeted individual is saying on the Net, and to stop social movements and human rights defenders demanding respect for basic rights," according to the AP.

The European Parliament has also spoken out against the idea of a UN agency having control over the internet, according to the BBC. Members of the European Parliament backed a resolution which urged rejection of changes to the treaty, which would "negatively impact the internet, its architecture, operations, content and security, business relations, internet governance and the free flow of information online."

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