Reporters Without Borders is concerned about an offensive by countries with a tradition of Internet control at a two-week World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) that the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a UN agency, is holding in Dubai. It is due to end on 14 December.
The main aim of the talks, which are taking place behind closed doors, is to revise the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) and, in particular, to extend the ITU’s regulatory authority to the Internet. The rules were last revised in 1988.
Reporters Without Borders is worried that a concerted offensive by authoritarian countries participating in the conference will harm the free flow of information online and encourage the spread of surveillance practices that leaves Internet users even more vulnerable.
Civil society’s exclusion from the talks is heightening the concern. Many NGOs have criticized the lack of transparency at the conference.
Reporters Without Borders calls on ITU member countries taking part in the conference to defend the Internet as a space for free speech and free content exchange and to reject all proposals that would restrict freedom of expression and information and provide grounds for the use of censorship techniques.
On 7 December, the United Arab Emirates submitted a particularly disturbing proposal (available on the WCITLeaks website) that is supported by Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and Sudan.
Its goal is a radical extension of the ITU’s authority over the Internet, not only over the activities of major telecommunications corporations, as the US authorities recommend, but also over a range of social networks and platforms.
One of its provisions challenges the ICANN’s role and the way that the private sector currently handles a great deal of Internet address management, stipulating that: “member states have the right to manage all naming, numbering, addressing and identification resources used for international telecommunications/ICT services within their territories.”
A newly-added cyber-security provision says that governments should “undertake appropriate measures” for protecting the “physical and operational security of networks, countering unsolicited electronic communication (e.g. spam); and protection of information and personal data (e.g. phishing).” Some government could use this provision as grounds for the deployment of blocking and filtering mechanisms.
Reporters Without Borders is also worried by the revelation on 4 December that recommendation on an international standard for the use of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), proposed by the ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU-T), has been approved.
By using DPI, governments can access the content of emails, instant messaging exchanges and VoIP conversations. Use of DPI constitutes a serious violation of both Net neutrality and the confidentiality of online communications.
The standardization of DPI for “new generation networks” would allow governments to claim that monitoring and obtaining information about Internet users, dissidents and journalists is permitted under international law. Adoption of DPI standardization without a regulatory framework strictly limiting its use to network maintenance is unacceptable.
Reporters Without Borders points out that DPI was used in Libya to intercept the communications of government opponents. The French-owned private sector company Amesys, the creator of an application that uses DPI, is the target of a lawsuit accusing it of complicity in acts of torture in Libya.
Civil society criticized the lack of transparency surrounding the WCIT process well in advance of the Dubai summit. More than 1,400 NGOs including Reporters Without Borders signed a joint call for the protection of Internet freedom and, on the initiative of the Centre for Democracy and Technology, a letter was sent to member countries and government delegations on 6 September opposing the idea that the ITU should become an Internet regulatory authority.