Cyberspace is the last frontier. It is free, deregulated and untouched by the dead hand of government bureaucracy.
It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that without an unfettered Internet the world would be a poorer and less informed place.
No free use of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn for a start. No social media-driven Arab Spring or online hunt for African warlord Joseph Kony to follow.
When social media meets social change, things happen. When somebody decides to curtail both, the outcomes don’t bear thinking about.
Still, that’s not stopping the United Nations from proposing that it alone control the World Wide Web.
A global row broke out under the cover of the U.S. presidential election over who should control and profit from the Internet, after a draft proposal seeking greater control was published online.
The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is the little-known United Nations agency pushing to regulate the web. Canada is one of its 193-member states and a top-seven financial contributor to ITU operations.
The ITU has suggested a range of reforms that would potentially stifle free speech and make users pay extra to use things like Skype and e-mail as well as place controls on personal social media use like blogging and religious websites.
It would also enable UN member states to lobby the ITU to close down Internet use it didn’t approve of.
In a little over two weeks, Canada will join other member states in voting on this range of reforms at the World Conference on International Communications (WCIT-12) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
The countries keeping Canada company in the vote for change include China, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Iran.
It’s something that worries the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), an organization that is calling for Canada to use its vote to veto the proposal outright.
“In Canada we have many protections that ensure our freedom of speech is protected,” said Abby Deshman, CCLA’s director of public safety programs. “In that regard we are lucky, but in other parts of the world, governments look for more ways to watch public opinion and monitor dissent.
“Freedom of expression is a basic human right and we would urge the countries that vote on this proposal to keep that in mind.
“Any proposal to control the Internet in any way, shape or form beyond the accepted laws of sovereign countries should be opposed outright.”
The CCLA is not alone in worrying about the outcome of next month’s conference.
In a show of unity, civil rights groups joined big communications corporations including Google in London on Monday to urge the UN to back down.
Backers appealed to the UN and the ITU itself to immediately open the plan for global debate and demanded a delay of any decision until all stakeholders — not just governments — are given a voice.
The general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, Sharran Burrow, wants global action now as the “Internet as we know it” comes under very real threat.
“Unless we act now, our right to freely communicate and share information could change forever. A group of big telecommunications corporations have joined with countries including China, Egypt and Saudi Arabia that already impose heavy restriction on Internet freedoms,” Burrow said.
“So far, the proposal has flown under the radar but its implications are extremely serious. Governments and big companies the world over may end up with the right not only to restrict the Internet and monitor everything you do online but to charge users for services such as e-mail and Skype.”
Put simply, give the UN the web kill switch and we can kiss the Internet as we know it goodbye.