The internet has become an eyesore for the several governments that are being threatened by dissidents and newly-emerging “net-activism” and/or more recently “hack-activism”, which has taken to the streets globally. A proposal has been tabled by Russia and China at the United Nations regulatory body - the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) - for deliberation that would ultimately lead to regulating the internet; which has, so far, been a decentralised network for the free flow of information and communication.
A recent incident of such a nature was observed in Thailand where the “webmaster” was held accountable for hosting libelous comments on her website against the monarch, which is a violation of the international legal principles; where the author should be held liable as the actual offender, rather than the host of the network.
Moreover, if regulatory bodies, such as ITU, are given authority to regulate the internet - it may not remain the same, since various regimes may try to customise and tailor it to their own specific and, at times, horrendous ends. For instance, the Pakistan Telecom Authority: a regulatory authority which operates under the auspices of the Ministry of Information and Technology in Pakistan banned a micro-blogging website - Twitter - last month that reeled no positive benefits for which the service was blocked, albeit for a few unfruitful hours.
Political freedoms are pinned against socio-economic benefits, which are the effectual victims of free speech or freedom of expression on the internet, if the regimes choose to regulate the use of the various services online. The losers here are the users at home or across the digital divide or in commerce: the innovators in the internet commerce virtualisation world also known as cloud computing. One can foresee an economic cost imposed on the customer for services rendered, such as “drip pricing” to compensate for meeting the requirements and standards of the regulatory body.
Even though the ITU will not be able to control the governance of the systems, it will layout the rules, regulations and standards to which the telecom and service providers would be subjected to; and eventually the consumer will have to pay for the cost. On a positive note, if restrictive trade practices along with restrictive approach to network accessibility are discouraged, we can witness a bridging of the gap of the digital divide and the regimes within the ITU - that find a multi-stakeholder approach more friendly and may sway towards less control and more open standards come the December negotiations. On the contrary, if that does not happen we may see that the underserved areas and/or the tyrannical democracies may restrict their web users’ access to minimum results and usage of customised location based services, for instance a user in Thailand may not be able to search for certain “terms” on Google.
Russia, China, Tajisktan and Uzbekistan have proposed through the United Nations General Assembly to lay out an international code of conduct, which would formulate a guide for the countries to establish norms and rules for internet oversight. Meanwhile, some Arab states are looking to seeking to gain compensation for the flow of internet traffic, which shall be a huge blow to the free flow of information.
Moreover, privacy and freedom of expression remain the bone of contention against cyber-security at a micro-scale, sedition and national security at a macro-level, for the purposes of law enforcement. The European Union and some Arab states seek to protect the privacy of its citizens bearing all costs. This December will determine: whether the 1988 treaty negotiations are lethal to a free internet where permission-less innovation fostered global economic growth and granted political freedoms, or will wisdom prevail over the inter-government negotiations and, finally, will the non-binding regulations proliferate and assure growth and freedoms over the internet - our global village!
n The writer is a researcher and consultant in the field of information communication technology and anti-trust law.