Web access battles brew before UN conference
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — An upcoming U.N. gathering about Internet oversight is raising alarms from a broad coalition of critics, including the U.S., tech giants such as Google and rights groups, concerned that changes could lead to greater efforts to censor Web content and stifle innovation in cyberspace.
Among the issues on the agenda at next month's meeting in Dubai are ideas to battle Internet spam and fraud. But also tucked into more than 1,300 proposals are potential hot-button items that opponents believe could be used by in places such as Iran and China to justify their crackdowns on bloggers and other Web restrictions.
Another likely battle when the meeting begins Dec. 3 is over European-backed suggestions to change the pay structure of the Web to force content providers — such as Google Inc., Facebook Inc. and others — to kick in an extra fee to reach users across borders.
It's unclear what proposals will emerge from the 11-day meeting of the U.N.'s 193-nation International Telecommunications Union, or ITU. The preliminary jockeying highlights the tensions of the Internet age between what to regulate and what to leave alone. The outcome could affect billions of Internet users.
Some are unhappy with the structure of the conference itself.
"Engineers, companies and people that build and use the Web have no vote," said Google in an online statement. "The billions of people around the globe that use the Internet, the experts that build and maintain it, should be included" in the decision-making process.
Others warn of dangers.
Simply opening the door to greater controls by the ITU raises concern among activists and others. They worry that countries with tightly controlled cyberspace such as China, Iran and Gulf Arab states will push for additions to the ITU's treaty — such as national security monitoring — that could be used to give legitimacy both to their current efforts to monitor and restrict the Web and to possible future clampdowns.
"We can expect an Internet totally different to today's open and global system," said Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, representing 175 million workers worldwide.
"Repressive governments will have a U.N. treaty which allows them to control freedom of expression, to monitor everything any targeted individual is saying on the Net, and to stop social movements and human rights defenders demanding respect for basic rights," she cautioned.
The host United Arab Emirates, for example, sharply tightened Internet laws this month to give authorities wide powers to bring charges for offenses such as insulting the rulers or trying to organize street protests.
The ITU's secretary-general, Hamadoun Toure, said in a May speech in Canada that he expected "a light-touch regulatory approach to emerge."
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