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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Keeping the Internet Safe From Governments

Even before the World Conference on International Telecommunications took place last month in Dubai, Internet activists anticipated trouble. So did Congress, which issued a resolution calling it “essential” that the Internet remain “stable, secure and free from governmental control.”

The worries proved prescient. The conference, which supposedly was going to modernize some ancient regulations, instead offered a treaty that in the eyes of some critics would have given repressive states permission to crack down on dissent. The United States delegate refused to sign it. Fifty-four other countries, including Canada, Peru, Japan and most of Western Europe, voted no as well.

The OpenNet Initiative estimates that about a third of Internt users live in countries that engage in “substantive” or “pervasive” blocking of Internet content. They tended to be among the 89 countries that signed the treaty, including Russia, Cambodia, Iran, China, Cuba, Egypt and Angola.

Those in favor of a free and open Internet have long had a problem with the International Telecommunication Union, the affiliate of the United Nations that ran the conference. They see the I.T.U., which dates back to 1865, as longing for the pre-Internet era, when its influence and fortunes were greater. As a result, activists think, the I.T.U. has become aligned with, and a tool of, countries that desire more governmental control over public speech.

In the wake of the Dubai meeting, there are renewed calls to scale back United States financing of the I.T.U. drastically. The logic is, why are taxpayers supporting an organization whose motives they oppose

“Paying for both sides of a conflict is unsustainable and illogical, and should simply be corr! ected,” says the De-Fund the I.T.U. Web site, which has posted a petition on the White House Web site.

The De-Fund site notes that the petition is not asking the United States government to take an unprecedented first step. “Many of our free-market democratic allies, led by Germany, France, Spain and Finland, have already de-funded the I.T.U. Likewise, right-thinking American companies like I.B.M., Cingular, Microsoft, Fox, Agilent, Sprint, Harris, Loral and Xerox, and others, have already withdrawn their private-sector contributions from the I.T.U.”

The petition was the brainchild of Bill Woodcock, the Berkeley-based research director of Packet Clearing House, a nonprofit institute. “This is really about whether people should be allowed to say what they think,” Mr. Woodcock said. “The Internet enables free speech, and that makes it very dangerous to countries that try to control public discourse.”

The United States government contribute about 8 percent of the I.T.U.’s budget. The 55 countries that voted against the treaty contribute about three-quarters of it. If the White House receives 25,000 signatures by Feb. 10, it will review and quite possibly act on the petition. As of Tuesday, it had about 600 signatures with minimal publicity.

A spokesman for the I.T.U., which is based in Switzerland, did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.