Internet Governance 28 September 2018

Push for Greater Control Over the Internet Coming Back Around

Grant Gross
By Grant GrossGuest AuthorTechnology Reporter

A group of countries will likely try to resurrect old battles on international control of Internet in the coming months, during upcoming meetings related to Internet Governance, some experts say.

The effort to relitigate unresolved debates on government control over the Internet will likely come up during the International Telecommunication Union’s Plenipotentiary Conference starting Oct. 29 in Dubai, said Robert Morgus, senior policy director focused on cybersecurity at U.S. think tank New America.

Morgus expects Russia, China, and other countries to renew their push for new internationally sanctioned controls over the Internet during the ITU meeting, he said Thursday at an Internet governance discussion hosted by New America and co-sponsored by the Internet Society’s Washington Chapter.

While the ITU has traditionally stayed away from Internet policy decisions, the group of authoritarian countries will likely push for a new World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) meeting, Morgus said, where Internet control and governance issues have been hot topics.

The last WCIT meeting, in December 2012, ended with the United States, the U.K., Japan, and a handful of other countries declining to sign an agreement supported by 89 nations that called for international cooperation in fighting security problems and spam. Critics of the agreement said it opened the door to countries adopting restrictive content-filtering regulations.

Some countries may also push for the ITU to begin regulating the Internet, Morgus said. “Many in the developing world look to the ITU for guidance in navigating public policy challenges associated with every new digital technology,” he added. “Parts of the world, including the likes of Russia and China, often try to use the ITU to as a means to consolidate or legitimize state control over telecommunications technology.”

Even as some countries push for more international control over the Internet, some have begun to “do their own thing,” with some countries emboldened to filter out political speech they don’t approve of and other countries trying to block “bad traffic” before it hits their borders, Morgus said.

“States will begin to choose their own governance models…and those will eventually start to trickle up to the international governance model, rather than from the international level down to the state level,” he said.

As a result, the Internet now feels less like a global network than the last generation of Internet users may have envisioned, he added. “Today, it’s hard for me to say…that we have a global network that shares values,” he said. “We have a series of interconnected [national] networks.”

Meanwhile, policymakers and Internet advocates are struggling to figure out how to deal with fake news and propaganda, said Shane Tews, co-chair of the Internet Governance Forum USA. While the Internet Governance Forum isn’t a policymaking organization, the issue of fake news is likely to be a topic during the IGF’s upcoming November meeting in Paris, she said.

New concerns about the “trust and truth” of online content may spur efforts to regulate the Internet, she added. The “weaponization” of information is not a new tactic, but the Internet is a recent tool in those efforts, Tews said.

In some countries, the issue of fake news is a freedom discussion, and in other countries, it’s a discussion about control and sovereignty, she added. “What do you do about the people who are getting paid to send out misinformation?” Tews said.

Even with some renewed pushes for top-down control of the Internet, there is also great momentum toward a free and open Internet, said Becky Burr, deputy general counsel at Neustar and a member of the board of directors at ICANN.

Better citizen education can help with the problem of fake news, as can studying history to see when the balance between misinformation and freedom of speech was better balanced than it is now, she added.

“There’s a part of me that thinks that trying to put the free-and-open Internet genie back into the bottle is going to fail every time,” Burr said.

Read the matrix of issues that will be discussed at the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) Plenipotentiary treaty conference (PP-18) in Dubai next month.

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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