When Two Visions of the Internet Collide

Last week, the International Telecommunications Union wrapped up a huge conference on Internet regulations and governance. The UN-sponsored event featured a few hardened factions. Debate pitted Russia, China and several Arab states — all promoting increased regulation of the Internet — against the U.S., Canada, Australia and much of Western Europe — all staunchly opposed to increased regulation.

As is often the case with the UN, there was plenty of disagreement and, not surprisingly, very little universal consensus.

For a look at what happened at the ITU conference, listen to a podcast featuring Josh Peterson, tech editor for the Daily Caller. Peterson was all over the conference before, during and after it took place, and he explains what happened, what didn’t happen, and why.

Download the podcast (11:22 minutes) or use the player:

Here are some excerpts:

TechNewsWorld: You have been writing about this conference for months, long before it happened, kind of previewing what might go down and what to look for. Now that it’s in the books and the dust is settling, was there anything that stood out to you? Any surprises that might have deviated from what you expected?

Josh Peterson: Well, perhaps what stood out to me the most — in fact it surprised me — it seemed a bit more uncertain as to how large the U.S. coalition was. So I think what surprised me was that there were 55 countries that did not sign the treaty [along with the U.S.]. And I guess as an American I thought that was cool, but as a reporter I wasn’t expecting that. Some of the countries were African, which was interesting, Kenya being one of them. And given what some of the African countries were asking for with regard to how they hope the Internet develops, that was the surprise.

Otherwise, I think from the behavior we saw with some of the Arab states and from Russia, that was to be expected.

TNW: Now, the U.S. coalition that you mentioned was 55 nations, and I think the other one was 89. Reports about this conference kind of lumped these countries into a couple factions. It seemed like you kind of had Russia and China, several Arabs states and some African countries on one side. And then on the other hand you had the U.S., Canada, Australia and a lot of European countries — Denmark, Germany, Sweden, etc. Is it fair to kind of cut the countries in half like that? Or is that too simplistic?

Peterson: I think it’s simplistic just because this type of stuff is very nuanced, very complex. But for the ease of reporting and explaining it to people, the two visions of the Internet, I guess, is the best way to explain it.

You have some countries that don’t really understand what the Internet is entirely capable of, and how it can benefit their own country and the development of their own country. So they have a view that — it’s weird to say primitive, and I don’t even know if primitive is the right word — but they just don’t have as full of an understanding about what the Internet is capable of.

And we don’t either. We’re still learning. Even in the U.S. we have some lobbyists, some congressmen who seem to be pushing an older view of the Internet, which is that it’s this information superhighway. It’s actually more than that. So like I said, there’s this nuanced approach that we need. There needs to be more education, and I think that’s the next step for some of these countries because there’s still a lot to do with regard to developing their own infrastructures.

But then you have countries like Russia and China, and their human rights records beg the question of what they want to do with the Internet. And they were the ones leading the charge as far as reforming this treaty, so I think because they were out front with it, you have two groups that were very vocal.

TNW: You mentioned that China and Russia were kind of among those leading the charge when it came to giving governments more autonomy to control their own Internets within their borders. And I’m curious if they would have gotten those provisions approved, how that affects what they’re doing now. Because China and Russia of course already have a pretty tight grasp on what is and isn’t allowed. Were they just trying to legitimize what they’re doing? Or were they trying to gain greater control? What was the impetus for them pushing for these [controls] that they seemingly already have?

Peterson: Well, I think it was both. There was a lot of talk about ICANN, and from the way I understand it, governments don’t have a seat at the table but it’s multiple parties. It’s a voluntary association. And you have governments that want more control over how those domain names are kind of run.

Part of the problem is that if governments say, “If so-and-so can have a domain name but so-and-so can’t,” you can start censoring people that way: “We don’t want this type of domain name because this domain name is obscene or it offends us in some way. It’s speaking out against the state in some way so we’re not going to allow that.” That’s another form of censorship.

Another part is, because this treaty is not legally binding — it’s merely an agreement of principles — people were concerned about a “takeover.” That seemed to be the rhetoric coming out in the lead up to the conference, that there was going to be this takeover. But that’s not exactly the case with this treaty.

David Vranicar is a freelance journalist and author ofThe Lost Graduation: Stepping off campus and into a crisis. You can check out hisECT News archive here, and you can email him at david[dot]vranicar[at]newsroom[dot]ectnews[dot]com.

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