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WCIT -- The Empire Strikes Back

In Dubai, a place where some people go to play monopoly with real buildings, the governments of the world are holding this conference about communications. The World Conference on International Telecommunications is a very serious attempt by Global governance to get what governments routinely define as "control and order" over telecommunications. At this conference, for the first time, that includes the Internet and that's what should draw our interest.

Much has been written about the proposals being discussed by nearly 140 country delegations and you're encouraged to read those critiques because the mentality and approach are revealing. The coverage by the Electronic Frontier Foundation is a good place to start.

But it's the fact that there is such an approach and why the world's governments would have an approach that I think is the critical issue here. The bottom line is conferences like this shouldn't take place. The world's governments should be working with the on-line community to figure out how to open the Internet, make its standards more transparent and make technology fully accessible to the human race. This conference may be giving lip-service to those goals but it's doing just the opposite.

The International Telecommunications Union (the sponsor of this soiree) is a United Nations agency based in Geneva that sets world-wide standards for telecommunications. It's been about since 1865 (overseeing telegraph issues) and was adopted into the UN family shortly after that body's founding.

The ITU has been functioning with a set of rules called the International Telecommunications Regulations (approved in 1988). In the over 20 years since that document was signed the world has changed and, to be fair, part of that change (or the driving force in it) is the Internet. So the ITU needs some new rules and, as part of that, it wants to grasp the Internet with its regulatory hand.

There are a plethora of proposals being made here, including the remarkable Russian proposal that DNS (domain name service) control be removed from ICANN and put in the hands of "national authorities". I can't even begin to imagine the insanity of an Internet controlled that way. Other similarly scary proposals are being floated. It's hard to imagine any of that being approved though and so the problem here is more a question of intent and focus than actual immediate impact.

Conferences of this type help define the discourse and this discourse is wrong-headed. It's off-course because the intent here isn't to have a discussion about the future; it's to control it. And governments just can't figure out how to do that.

So they fecklessly search for a "clue": something to seize on to gain some of that control. For instance, there seems to be a relentless focus on the issue of cyber-crime and its related "ills" (child protection and identity theft). The "problem and challenge" of this abuse is such a persistent refrain in the mass media that it's small wonder most people think this is the main Internet issue but governments know better. In truth, it's a problem and no one denies that. But it's not an Internet problem; it's a criminal problem and every country on earth has resources to deal with criminal problems...or should develop them.

This conference, even at its most open, is considering programs designed to create International rules and cooperation to halt or at least control this on-line abuse. After all, the abuse of kids or credit cards crosses national borders. Like capitalism, crime is now international. Drugs are smuggled across borders, counterfeit money is moved across water and profits from illegal activities are hidden in banks in all kinds of places.

The difference is that the Internet is a real social movement, using a technology that defies government control and transcends national borders. That is its purpose: to allow us to communicate with each other without government permission or oversight. So of course crime is tougher to fight over the Internet. But every advance in technology makes crime tougher to fight: the automobile, the telephone, the computer itself not to mention fire-arms and bombs. The technology that makes our lives better also makes crime easier; the trick is to figure out how to combat crime without forcing a reversal of social progress.

There is talk among the powerful of a "balance" between Internet freedom and "the protection of societies" and it has been refrained often at this conference, based on reports we're seeing. Sounds sane, even almost reasonable, until you actually think about itY you want to "balance" freedom with something else? Balance happens between two opposites. So the opposite of freedom is? Sane, that ain't.

Nobody has ever come up with a legitimate reason to control the Internet. All arguments for control are based on blaming the Internet for abuses that exist and flourish in our society. The way to combat these ills is to change and improve the society and the Internet is a tool in doing just that.

We invented it to communicate with each other. Sure, governments can use it and so can companies. In fact, they do. But they can do that because the Internet is for communication and they use communication. Their use of the Internet doesn't mean they can take it over and, in fact, if they took it over the Internet wouldn't be very useful to them.

Certainly, there are important Internet issues to discuss, issues that we need to sit down as a world and start talking about. But who told these governments they could represent us? Can you really discuss a technology that defies national borders by bringing together national governments? What do they know? Where is their experience? More importantly, if we're going to use these governments as a convening point, which of them has called national convenings in their own countries to get the thinking and experience of people who work in technology and fight for its continued freedom?

I favor international discussion of many of the pressing issues like Internet language (currently still English but not for long), full access as a human right, developing technology so that all people can use the Internet, real privacy, and the protection, support and promulgation of Free and Open Source Software. There are many more issues the world needs to talk about. National governments can play a role -- help us set up the mechanisms for such discussion and get us some places in which to have them and encourage your media to pay respectful and intelligent attention to them. We also already have a small army of advocacy organizations (called "civil society organizations" in most of the world) that study this stuff and work on it. They are in every country and grouped together in International organizations like the Association for Progressive Communications. They could be huge in making this happen.

Putting together a conference of that type would be complicated but it's entirely possible if viewed as a process: national and regional convenings leading up to International convergences. The Social Forum movement provides all kinds of lessons about the good and the bad in such a process. We have an advantage the World Social Forum didn't have -- we can use the Internet more effectively to communicate across national borders. We can run a world congress on-line if we put our minds to it.

Wide open for the world to see. Wide open for the world to participate in. Exactly what this WCIT thing doesn't do.

(correction: the original published version of this blog post misnamed the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I have corrected the error. Thanks, DKG, for pointing it out)