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Can the ITU really contain the internet?


Activists protest during a demonstration against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) on February 25, 2012 in Berlin, Germany. ACTA is a proposed treaty attempting to establish an international governing body with legal standards intended to protect intellectual property and prevent the production and sale of counterfeit goods. The German government has delayed a decision on the agreement, citing concerns by the Justice Ministry, and according to news reports is waiting for approval by the European Parliament prior to signing the multinational treaty.


Adam Berry

As the International Telecommunication Union enters its third day of meetings to discuss internet regulatory plans in Dubai, web activists, hacker collectives and online freedom advocates are gearing up for another fight against internet regulation and censorship.

It’s another battle in the war for an open internet – a war that the forces of anti-regulation seem to be winning.

The ITU is facing staunch opposition to proposed regulatory measures as tech giants like Google’s Vint Cerf have come out against the proposals. If recent history is any indication, attempts to regulate the internet, by and large, fail. 

On local, national and international levels, internet users around the world have not only displayed a willingness to take to the streets to protest internet censorship but have demonstrated an ability to simply bypass any regulations or restrictions already put into place. 

On the national level, China censors citizens’ internet access more heavily than almost any other country on the globe. Using what is called the “Great Firewall of China”, the People’s Republic boasts the most technologically advanced online censorship technology in the world. 

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“China operates an extensive censorship policy which includes filtering specific key words and politically sensitive subjects, which result in the blocking of specific internet results, as well as the complete blocking of a large number of websites, including human rights websites such as Amnesty International’s, considered politically sensitive by the authorities,” writes Amnesty international. 

But in spite of the effort, it’s still not foolproof. 

Social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook are both behind the great firewall. However, the government has been unable to keep a good deal of Chinese netizens from social media. 

One report released by London-based researcher GlobalWebIndex reported last September that there were 63.5 million Chinese users jumping the great firewall and using Facebook. GlobalWebIndex also reported that China has 35.5 million active Twitter users. Other organizations that monitor China’s web censorship efforts estimated that the numbers were much lower. Still, the internet most often finds a way. 

In some countries, internet regulation has become a farce. 

In 2007, Syria blocked access to Facebook and it now officially blocks access to YouTube and Blogspot among many other sites. Most Damascus internet cafes, however, will happily assist customers in accessing blocked sites using web proxies or virtual private networks (VPNs). 

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“Syrians access Facebook via proxy servers that subvert the government’s firewall, which also blocks YouTube, Blogspot, Israeli newspapers, and a range of other sites. In the capital’s Old City, where foreigners and Western-minded youths congregate, Internet cafe owners tout their shops’ ability to access banned sites,” the Christian Science Monitor reported in 2010. 

In Western nations, further attempts made by governments and international organizations to regulate the internet have all been met with protest and have eventually led to failure. Indeed, online paranoia about the ITU meetings may stem from international and online protests against legislation like SOPA, PIPA and CISPA in the United States and ACTA in the European Union. 

These pieces of legislation, activists believed, would fundamentally alter the internet and stifle the freedom of expression enjoyed by netizens. While debate in the US Congress and the European Parliament continued – the internet had made up its mind. SOPA and ACTA must be stopped. 

Like never before, different sectors of the internet banded together in protest in the US, EU and across the globe. When it was all said and done, the internet won. Because of its victory, American and European politicians know that tampering with the internet is not only unpopular but could lead to the end of political careers. Now, congressmen are pushing for moratoriums on internet regulation for good PR. 

No one is quite sure what the ITU is up to in Dubai but the internet is decidedly against it. Even in a ridiculous, worst case scenario where Europe adopts Chinese censorship policies, VPNs will still be around. While any regulation coming out of the ITU would be a huge blow to internet freedom, it still wouldn’t be the end.

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