Where does the Internet exist? Within states? Within countries? Does it drift in international waters, its regulation guided by the flag each ship (or site) flies? It’s the quandary of the 21st century – oft debated, oft contentious, oft interrupted by pirates of one sort or another.
Last month, the International Telecommunications Union held an Internet regulations and governance conference in Dubai sponsored by the United Nations. There, two major coalitions took center stage as a treaty was proposed to alter the twenty-five year old ITU guidelines. China, Russia, and a group of Arab states led the charge pressing for more government control of the Web, and the United States, Canada, Australia, and a number of European nations stressed the continued open access of the Internet as we know it. In total, nearly 90 countries wanted stricter regulation. 55 did not, refusing to sign the treaty.
The split could be examined by authoritative versus democratic government style, by conceptions of what the Internet’s gains and threats can be to the population, and by the varied levels of the Internet’s integration into a country’s daily social and business life.
“If you allow any government one inch of controlling your freedom, it will take up ten kilometers before you realize. And if you were to regain the freedom, it will never be the ten kilometers you ceded,” said Bitange Ndemo, the Permanent Secretary of Kenya’s Ministry of Information and Communication. Kenya was one of the 55 nations that refused to sign the new treaty.
“The developing world will most be affected as most of the content that we need today is out there. We have not developed enough local content,” Ndemo continued.
The Internet giants had their objections as well.
“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.”
This treaty is more of an agreement of principles than a legally binding document, but the U.N. and the nations of the world are starting to lean in a direction that could change the Web as we know it. We’ve heard the stories of bloggers, tweeters, and reporters silenced and worse. We’ve known of sites shut down and citizens hiding behind the anonymity of a screenname. America is known as the land of the free. Though grown in this Western mindset, the World Wide Web does not presently have such independence, no matter how globally inclusive its name implies it to be.
This is surely just the beginning of the story.