It’s Russia, China, and Arab states versus E.U., U.S. and Japan; India is silent

The December 3-14 World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai, could collapse if Russia does not back off from its proposal to bring the Internet under the control of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), thereby subjecting the web to inter-governmental regulation.

At the conference’s plenary session, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Kazakhstan backed the Russian proposal, while the U.S., European nations, Japan and Australia vehemently opposed it. Internet’s inclusion in the ITU will be back on the table when the meet resumes on Monday. So far, India has remained silent on this crucial matter.

A similar divergence is beginning to emerge on language on cyber security within the purview of the ITU, an U.N. body.

A lot now depends on whether a compromise can be reached on four crucial issues — inclusion and language on the Internet and Information, Communications, Technology (ICT), roaming charges, and cyber security.

Fears come true

The Russian move comes shortly after Moscow’s new domestic legislation that will allow it to block content deemed “extremist” and a year after President Vladimir Putin told ITU secretary-general Hamadoun Touré, “Russia was keen on pursuing the idea of establishing international control over the Internet, using monitoring and supervisory capabilities of the ITU.”

Civil society’s worst fears

Russia’s insistence on pushing the Internet’s inclusion under the ITU has confirmed civil society’s worst fears — the WCIT could see the Internet sliding under inter-governmental control, thus adversely impacting free speech while increasing online surveillance and blocking.

Earlier, during the inaugural session, Mr. Touré, quoting the ITU’s Constitution and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in an attempt to assure delegates, said: “Fears have also been expressed that new provisions in the International Telecom Regulations (ITRs) might help legitimatise government censorship. And I fully agree that this should not happen. This conference will not stand in the way of need to protect the right of freedom of expression, the right to communicate and the right to privacy.”

Russia has said that it wants Internet traffic, access and basic infrastructure to be included within the definitions of ITRs — a binding treaty. It proposed a “National Internet Segment,” thereby dissecting a global web, based on national territories.

China was among the first to publicly support the move, suggesting that the Internet was global infrastructure and, therefore, should be included in the ITRs.

Dubai nervous

Department of Telecommunications Secretary R. Chandrashekhar, who leads the Indian delegation, told The Hindu: “In general, India has not supported the inclusion of the Internet and content in ITRs. We have only favoured the inclusion of Internet Communication Technologies (ICT) to the extent they have a bearing and impact on the availability and security of telecom services.”

The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), which represents 700 million mobile subscribers, nearly 384 million of whom are connected online, is a part of the Indian delegation.

Its director general, Rajan Mathews, urged the government to oppose the inclusion of the ICTs and the Internet under the ambit of the ITU, and requested the government to “take a clear stance” at the conference.

As expected, sharp divides have come to the fore, as multiple concurrent drafting groups are frantically at work on ‘compromise language.’

Arab States’ stance

Meanwhile, Dubai as the Conference Chair and UAE as the host, are increasingly getting nervous because of the Arab States’ stance, which is perceived to favour the Russian and Chinese positions.

Another reason for their nervousness is that a failed conference could further hurt the UAE’s reputation on the issue of online freedom and free speech.

Online campaigns had a pivotal role in galvanising civil movements against authoritarian governments during the Arab Spring.