Google, Tech Companies Take Action to Preserve Internet at U.N. Treaty Talks

Firms join U.S. delegation in Dubai

A veritable who's who of Internet and tech companies including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Intel, Cisco, AT&T and Verizon are headed to Dubai next week in an effort to preserve a free and open Internet.

Prompting the trip is alarm that proposed updates to a 24-year-old international treaty governing global telephone exchanges and other communications could put control of the Web into the hands of the United Nations and its member states. This could allow some governments to censor speech, cut off Internet access or set new fees for Internet traffic.

Google alone is sending four representatives to Dubai, more than any other company, as part of a 100-member U.S. delegation of government organizations and officials for the two-week World Conference on International Communications.

Despite a big presence, none of the organizations and companies that are attending will have a seat at the table for the closed-door negotiations of the United Nation's International Telecommunications Union.

"The ITU is the wrong place to make decisions about the future of the Internet," Google says on its Take Action blog where it has launched an online advocacy campaign to let consumers know what's at stake. "Governments alone should not determine the future of the Internet. The billions of people around the globe that use the Internet, and the experts that build and maintain it, should be included."

In a press release, the ITU argues that Google and other critics of the ITU process have it all wrong and that the meeting will not be used as a forum to increase censorship and regulate the Internet.

"The freedom of expression and the right to communicate are already enshrined in many U.N. and international treaties that the ITU has taken into account in the establishment of its constitution and convention, and also its mandate by the plenipotentiary conference, which is the supreme organ of ITU," said Paul Conneally, head of communications and partnership promotion division for the ITU in a statement. "ITU's goal is to continue enabling the Internet, as it has done since the Internet's inception."

But proposals from Russia, China and Iran that have been leaked on would seem to indicate otherwise, using legitimate concerns like cybersecurity and spam as a Trojan horse to gain political control over the Internet. "The leaked internal document makes crystal clear that the agency fundamentally misunderstands the resistance of Internet users to an enhanced U.N. role in Internet governance, and to proposals that would give repressive governments increased political cover to slow or silence the free flow of information under the guise of implementing a U.N. treaty," wrote Internet industry analyst Larry Downes in a Forbes article which lays out the proposals and the pitfalls. "It isn’t the lack of transparency, in other words, that has outraged users. It’s the terrible ideas the agency is at pains to keep secret within its sometimes complicit national membership."

Alarm bells have been ringing since February when Federal Communications Commissioner Robert McDowell, who will also be in Dubai, penned an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal arguing that the pending negotiations could upend the multistakeholder process that has allowed the Internet to flourish. That eventually led to Congress unanimously passing a resolution denouncing any international effort to regulate the Internet. 

There's not a soul in Washington or in the U.S. for that matter that isn't worried about what could come out of Dubai. Yet despite the unity here, it may not be enough to keep draconian proposals at bay because each country gets only one vote. "The U.S. doesn't have a majority," said Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, who serves on the State Department's Advisory Committee on International Communications and Information Policy. "I've never seen the U.S so unified on an issue. I am 100 percent confident they are doing everything they can even as the rules are stacked against us."  

What needs to happen is what happened last January when the Internet community rose up and shut down the advancement of online piracy bills, SOPA and PIPA. "The world needs a SOPA/PIPA moment," Shapiro said.