Meeting on the Future of the Internet – Mired in lack of transparency

Level of Transparency these days depicted above

Why is transparency such a difficult proposition nowadays? It seems to be constantly popping up as an issue in nearly any large bureaucratic process. There are only two possible answers of course – either a belief that true democracy (which requires information as a basis for choices) is untenable as a governing mechanism, or that democracy is undesirable to those “leaders” unwilling to conduct transparent proceedings. I would lean towards the latter. For those more interested in the reasoning behind this, I’ve written another post here on a concept called ‘the iron law of meritocracy’ that may be relevant. Anyhow, I digress from the purpose of this post and that is point out that the future of the internet is now being discussed and possibly decided behind closed doors in the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) from Dec 3rd to Dec 14th, 2012. 
It may be redundant to stress the importance that the internet has made in the world today, as anyone reading this is likely to have a very healthy appreciation of the tremendous role the internet has played in leveling the field for information spreading, opinion sharing and ability of dissenting voices to be heard and recognized. Yet, even aside from the direct role that the internet has played, it has also had cascading effects, much like a vaccine for an eradicated disease which has benefitted generations of people aside from the ones who’ve been given the vaccine. The reason that it has been able to play such a large role is the unregulated and decentralized nature of the internet. Of course, the infrastructure behind it and optimizing it’s spread and growth may require some regulation, but it is important to not let this be the disguise under which the internet itself is controlled. About a decade ago, a group of 4 engineers in Microsoft wrote an impressive, almost ‘prophetic’, paper entitled “The Darknet and the Future of Content Distribution” on how the growth of a network system such as the internet would ensure that information continues to spread at a increasingly faster rate as technology grows, regardless of attempts to restrain it, due to it’s inherent decentralized nature. Whether this continues to remain true remains to be seen. 
An agency of the UN known as “International Telecommunication Union” (ITU) is hosting the WCIT to go over and revise the decades old International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) which govern standards and regulations for information and communication technologies. The ITU, as noted by Wired, does a lot of important work, such as “sets spectrum and technology standards, has done much to improve global interoperability and efficiency, and helped increase access to information and communication technologies in developing nations.” Having said that, the preparatory documents to the important  upcoming meeting have been very secretive, with only member governments and a few other parties being given access rights. Some leaked documents have made their way out though and have shown to be potentially very worrying as they include proposals for restrictions on online privacy, free expression, access to information, and ICT use around the world. 

Civil society, of course, quickly banded together and proceeded to draft and sign into documentation their concerns of the effects this would have on human rights (available as a petition here, do check and sign if you agree), to which the ITU secretary stated, “WCIT-12 is not in any way going to be challenging Article 19, or indeed any other article in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”. While a mere statement seems to hardly address the concerns, if true, it doesn’t explain the lack of transparency or the high barriers it takes to join the proceedings ($2,000 – $35,000 annual membership costs). These high barriers leave out some of most important stake holders in the whole process – civil society and human rights organizations. Not to mention that the current process is giving all power to governments, when we currently have governments of the most powerful democracy (USA) and the largest democracy (India) occupying spots 1 and 2 respectively on Google’s list of user surveillance requests – an indication of clear disregard for information privacy and freedom of speech. Yes, the country with the most power in the ITU, is also the one that is number 1 by a large margin in Google’s list. How much confidence does that inspire in the decision making process of the ITU? I can’t claim to be very convinced, especially when what is required for true growth from here is more power to other voices from around the world and not more centralization. 
Hopefully, in a couple of weeks, we will be able to say that the Internet is still as mobilizing as it has been thus far. 
For those interested in following more on this, you can check out the following:
A recent event by Stanford “Is this the End of the Internet“(video), 
Google’s Take Action page
As well as the petition mentioned above. 

(Thanks to Kruttika for the links)
Swaraj Paul Barooah

Swaraj Paul Barooah

Follow @swarajpb Swaraj has a deep interest in IP, Innovation and Information policy, especially when they involve issues relating to Access to Knowledge, Innovation incentive mechanisms, Digital Freedoms, Open Access, Education, Health and Development. After his BA, LLB (hons) from Nalsar Univ of Law, Hyderabad, he went on to do his LLM from UC Berkeley in 2010. He is now pursuing his J.S.D. degree from UC Berkeley where he is focusing on Drug Innovation Policy and Access to Medicines. Aside from SpicyIP, he is also engaged as a consultant on various IP matters, and is a visiting faculty member at Nalsar Univ of Law. He is also in the process of starting up a New Delhi based "IP, Innovation & Information Policy" focused think-tank.

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