Internet coup

What would the Internet be like if repressive regimes such as those in China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran called the shots? How accessible would the Internet remain if publishers like YouTube or Wikipedia had to pay telecommunications carriers every time you accessed their Web pages?

As unlikely as these scenarios might sound, people are belatedly awakening to the possibility that a handful of states working quietly through the United Nations might change the open nature of the Internet and give governments greater control over our online lives. The changes would not only curtail freedom of expression, but also raise access costs for everyone and stifle innovation. To a country such as the Philippines, the effects could be nothing short of disastrous.

At a symposium organized by the Internet Society and the Infocomm Technology Association of the Philippines (ITAP) last week, private companies and organizations that rely heavily on a free and open Internet raised the alarm over the UN power grab and urged the government to do something about it.

The vehicle for the Internet coup is a hoary UN agency called the International Telecommunication Union or ITU, which oversees treaties on radio spectrum management and telecommunications networks. The 150-year-old organization has little expertise in Internet governance and regulation, but a group of member-governments and some telecommunications companies want to introduce new measures in a 1988 telecommunications treaty that would fundamentally change how the global network of networks operates.

Among the proposals are provisions in the treaty that would legitimize state intervention in content and access, a move that Internet pioneer Vint Cerf says could lead to “all sorts of suppression of free speech.”

Just as worrisome is a bid by some telecommunications groups to impose formal interconnection agreements that would require content owners to pay additional fees to carriers for delivering online content to users.

Seemingly innocuous proposals such as quality of service guarantees would be expensive to carry out and would ultimately raise Internet costs for content providers and end-users.

“This could broaden the digital divide,” warned Rajnesh Singh, the regional director of the Internet Society, who briefed the symposium participants on the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in December, where 193 member states of the ITU will vote on the new treaty proposals.

The new charges might lead some Internet service providers and content providers to limit connections to the world’s poorer countries, including the Philippines, he said.

Other symposium participants said the content charges would also hurt Philippine companies that wanted to reach a global market through the Internet and urged the government to take a forceful stand in the ITU debate.

“The Philippines should be a leader,” said Dondi Mapa, ITAP president. “Filipinos are leaders and innovators, and I think people will listen to us.”

Outsourcing companies, which are heavy Internet users, also expressed concern over the ITU proposals.

“Any regulations that increase costs for end-users would be disastrous,” said Gigi Virata, senior executive director of the Business Processing Association of the Philippines.

The Philippine Software Industry Association also supported a strong position against the new telecommunications fees.

“What worries me are the charges on content,” said Bettina Quimson, director of the PSIA. She added that efforts to improve the educational system through the use of the Internet would suffer from increased access costs.

“To add that onto any other existing cost is just going to enhance the pockets of the telcos… The telcos are already making money, and charging you for every transaction won’t help.”

Neither of the two major carriers—the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. and Globe Telecom —were at last week’s symposium, even though they were invited.

Two government representatives at the gathering – Undersecretary Louis Casambre of the Information and Communications Technology Office (ICTO) and Edgardo Cabarios, director for common carriers at the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC)—expressed a willingness to meet with private stakeholders to reach a consensus on the country’s position.

But sheer bureaucratic inertia might stymie these efforts.

The ICTO, which is under the Department of Science and Technology, is still in the middle of a reorganization following its creation last year. The NTC, on the other hand, is the country’s official representative to the ITU but has little expertise in Internet governance.

“The Philippines has never had a firm position on anything,” acknowledged Al Alegre of the ICTO. “The NTC regulates [the industry] but does not make policy. We are trying to talk to the NTC to rationalize our position.”

With less than three months before the crucial ITU vote, however, the question is whether these two agencies and private stakeholders can get their acts together and reach a strong, unified position in time.

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