Standing up for Internet freedom, in Israel and the world

Israel, the US and 54 other countries voted against changes in an international telecommunications treaty that could lead to increased web censorship, Israeli experts say

Graphic of the countries that voted for (green background) and against (white background) the WCIT Treaty (photo credit: Courtesy ITU)
Graphic of the countries that voted for (green background) and against (white background) the WCIT Treaty (photo credit: Courtesy ITU)

Israel sided with the US — and 54 other countries — against changes to an international treaty that, some fear, could limit private use of the Internet and provide a basis for regimes to prevent their citizens from freely accessing and posting material on the Internet. The World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai last week ended with ratification of the treaty that encourages governments to take an active role to “foster an enabling environment for the greater growth of the Internet.” The changes to the treaty were approved by 89 countries.

The changes were approved in a resolution attached to a treaty for members of the UN-sponsored International Telecommunications Union (ITU). The resolution (which is not binding on members) does not explicitly mention limiting or banning Internet content, but does call on governments to take an active role in “ensuring Internet access for the benefit of their citizens.”

While the resolution’s language was innocuous enough, it was the interpretation of that language that worried the US and other Western countries. The resolution, said the US, seemingly gives a “carte blanche” to governments to determine what those “benefits” should be, without an objective standard of freedom of access; countries could decide that free access to information was not “beneficial” for their citizens. The resolution thus appeared to be the beginning of a “slippery slope” which, if allowed to progress to its logical conclusion, would put an end to the Internet as a forum for the free exchange of ideas and opinions.

The resolution was a milder version of proposals by Russia, China, and Arab countries for more direct control of Internet content by governments. Those proposals were softened by a last-minute deal suggested by Egypt, which recommended that proposals on content be left off the table, in order to foster unity on the resolution.

Nevertheless, the language of the resolution as proposed, along with other components of the treaty, were still unacceptable to the US (which is by far the dominant player in the Internet business, as the host country of ICANN — Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers — the organization that controls the Domain Name System that allows surfers to access websites by name instead of IP address). “The United States cannot sign revised ITRs (international telecommunication regulations) in their current form,” the head of the US delegation to the treaty meeting, Ambassador Terry Kramer, told reporters Thursday night. “Other administrations have continually filed out-of-scope proposals that ultimately altered the nature of the discussions and the ITRs,” he said, referring to the more restrictive proposals that were eventually pared down.

After the US announcement, other countries — including Israel — announced that they would not endorse the amendment either. And with good reason, said Meital Schwartz of the Israel Internet Association (ISOC). That slippery slope is a lot steeper than most people think. “The resolution isn’t the only problem,” she told The Times of Israel. “The entire treaty plants the seeds for a UN takeover of the Internet.”

While it’s true that the treaty declares that the Internet needs to remain free and open, the devil is in the details of the 30-page document. “While the overall treaty declares that governments should ensure Internet freedom, there are provisions inside that relate to government control — for example, empowering governments to prevent spam and e-mail viruses.”

And while no one is a fan of spam, the ITU just isn’t the right forum to fight it. “Giving governments an excuse to deal with Internet content will just whet their appetites for more control, and lead to censorship.” And while nobody likes spam, Schwartz said, it would be better dealt with by organizations like ICANN, which represent users and industry working together with governments to ensure that everybody’s interests are taken into account.

“The fact that 89 countries voted to allow governments to remove certain content indicates a worrying development for the cause of Internet freedom,” Schwartz added. “The vote results obligate Israel to continue to fight for a free and open Internet, for the benefit of all.”

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