THROUGHOUT THE WEST, we enjoy the freedom to communicate, associate, travel and trade. We also expect to be able to think, preach and speak without political, security or financial penalty. These basic human rights have been hard-won over centuries and should not be taken as god-given; they have to be defended.
Freedom is now epitomised by websites and blogs; social nets that rapidly became a part of our culture. That these are beyond the reach of government control or censorship is an outcome of self-organisation and viral growth. For the most part, the system works well, but we would be unwise to take it for granted.
Sadly, a large proportion of humanity does not enjoy such riches, but live under regimes that censor, edit and steer information to their own religious and/or political purposes. When visiting or communicating with people in such areas, I have been impressed with the various subterfuges employed to by-pass all forms of control. Cut off, or try to control, email, text or instant message and people will adopt anonymising software. Ban Google and people will employ tunnels and proxies to gain access through other countries. Close down the internet and riots quickly follow.
It is far too late for total control; the genie is out of the bottle. Previously suppressed peoples have tasted freedom and want more, while several Western governments have attempted to monitor all net traffic and found themselves trying to boil the ocean.
New freedoms equate to new opportunities, creativity, business models and modes of trading as well as advances for education, healthcare, industry, commerce and society, but the price is more tolerance and less control in large measure.
We have now reached an interesting epoch, with five billion people able to access the internet via PC, laptop, tablet and smartphone – we are just a hair’s breadth away from liberating all people with access to everything. So it is something of a surprise to learn that the recent International Telecommunications Union (ITU) gathering in Dubai had Control of The Internet on the agenda. Why do they think that they are involved in or entitled to consider this, you might ask. It is none of their business and outside their remit. The ITU was born of a need for countries and peoples to be able to communicate using standard interfaces, protocols and network topologies, not to control or restrict content.
The ITU is an organ of the UN and this conference hosted more than 1,950 delegates, a number of whom are inclined to vote in the direction of control and limitation. To be blunt, the ITU is becoming dominated by controlist regimes, and they are making a move to control the internet across the globe. This is beyond defining and regulating the wireless and optical spectrum, interfaces and protocols.
We already see differing degrees of internet freedom by region, but there is a growing voice to make it global and uniform. Perhaps the worst feature of all this is that the ITU meeting and voting is conducted behind closed doors.
UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said: “The overall objective is to ensure universal access to the benefits of IT, including for the two-thirds of the world’s population currently not on-line. The management of information and communication technology should be transparent, democratic and inclusive of all stakeholders.”
However, many people think this conference may reshape the internet for decades to come. I doubt it, and my prediction is that all attempts at censorship will be thwarted by new solutions. We have all seen what openness can create in terms of economic and social value. It is also essential that the internet remains borderless, belonging to everyone, and not under the control of any one country, government or organisation.
Peter Cochrane is an IT?consultant and former chief technologist at BT