Listen to this article
The man in the middle of the vast stadium pressed a button on a boxy old computer terminal, causing a message to flash across the darkness in front of a billion viewers scattered all over the world. This is for everyone, it said.
This was Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who helped create the World Wide Web and then surrendered control of it. The act, staged at the centre of the extravagant opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games, showed how his invention triggered a digital revolution as important as preceding scenes of industrial and social upheaval.
More than two decades after his breakthrough, the future of this digital world is the subject of intense debate to determine whether it really will be for everyone.
In December, the UN World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai will set out a broad framework of regulations for the internet – the global network of networks that links more than 2bn people, is gaining more than 500,000 users daily, and is the platform on which the web was founded. But the meeting’s goals are causing alarm.
Technically, the conference focuses on international agreements governing telecommunications, but some proposals stretch further than many want into internet governance.
The battle is already being fought behind meeting room doors at the International Telecommunication Union, an agency of the UN. Western nations – such as the US and the EU – in particular do not want to give the ITU extra authority that could indirectly benefit authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, eastern Europe and Asia. They are accused of seeing an opportunity to enhance their ability to control the web and crack down on political dissidents.
“If new governance rules had been set to tighten the control of the web a few years ago we would have not had an Arab spring,” says one senior EU diplomat. “The internet must be left free and untouched, the less we tinker with it the better.”
Much of the controversy will hinge on the language of the regulations to be mapped out in Dubai. Some proposals published by the ITU and released to member states are seen as creating a benign environment for state intervention in content and access. Because of the vague language, that could mean blocking anything from spam to political material perceived as illegal.
Proponents of a free web fear broad clauses concerning national sovereignty and security could be used as smokescreen for legitimising censorship, clandestine monitoring and the blocking of websites.
“Many of the proposals are well-intentioned but would also give legitimacy for all sorts of suppression of free speech,” says Vint Cerf, the so-called “chief internet evangelist” at Google.
The Internet Society, a non-profit group, says that seemingly technical proposals over the naming, numbering and allocation of addresses to web sites could be abused and “impose detrimental burdens” on freedom and openness.
“The future of the internet is at stake,” says Mr Cerf. “Some countries are looking for more national control over the internet. Not surprisingly, authoritarian countries are behind this, led by China and Russia.”
In truth, guidelines from Dubai may make little real difference in the most authoritarian regimes. States such as Iran and North Korea censor or ban the internet. This month, the list of taboo words in China – that trigger a clampdown on web pages – was updated to include references to Gu Kailai, who was the wife of Bo Xilai, until recently one of China’s most senior officials. She was given a suspended death sentence for murder.
Beyond these concerns over politics and human rights, the argument over ownership of the internet is also highly commercial.
Most crucially, delegates from the 193 nations represented in Dubai will cross swords on whether telecoms groups should be allowed to charge different rates from suppliers of web content for access to their networks.
Several telecoms companies are expressing increasing frustration over the mechanics of how the internet works. They feel they undertake the hard work of laying the physical infrastructure but are being left out of the digital gold rush that has built the fortunes of companies such as Google. In the analogy of one telecoms executive, they have carried the cost of building the roads so need to see some return on their investment. In the meantime, the “carmakers” want the network to be free.
Some telecoms companies are seeking the right to charge highly profitable content providers in return for guarantees the infrastructure will work smoothly. Many western politicians and internet activists are hostile to the idea of charges, viewing it as a “tax” on the internet. The implicit threat is that telecoms companies could slow down websites, raising the prospect of second class citizens in the new digital world.
Given these competing political and commercial tensions, it is little wonder that Dr Hamadoun Touré, the secretary-general of ITU, admits that the Dubai meeting will be tough.
He hopes the meeting should set the “Ten Commandments” or universal concepts for global communications. Rather than setting prescriptive and specific rules, he says the commandments would “set the stage for competition, innovation and economic growth”. But even the mention of economics in the internet debate will be anathema for many who see the web as a bastion of a free market and guardian of a free society.
The last time the group met to revise the International Telecommunication Regulations was in 1988, when the internet was in its infancy, and Dr Touré says the rules need updating.
“In 1988, there was only voice,” he told the Financial Times. “Now time, distance and location is irrelevant …someone has to build the road.”
He rejects the “talk that the UN is taking over the internet” and says that everyone needs to work together. “All stakeholders need to be involved. This is why a phone made in China will work in Brazil. Even definition is a problem …so we need to work with the lowest common denominator [and] a common framework. Failure is not an option.”
But some attendees could be keen to see failure and maintain the status quo. They see the ITU as overreaching its authority outside its traditional bailiwick of telecoms and, in doing so, allowing outside interests a chance to control the internet.
Expanding the ITU’s jurisdiction into the new sphere of the internet has produced “highly undesirable” results, according to Tony Rutkowski, an internet expert who helped arrange the previous WCIT meeting in 1988.
He says some delegates are pursuing “extreme agendas” at the meeting for various religious, political and social reasons.
Net neutrality is set to be the most vexed specific issue. This concept lies at the core of the debate on whether telecoms companies can charge differing rates to content providers.
A number of European governments are considering laws to preserve net neutrality but the telecoms industry says that these could clash with the need to support the internet’s physical infrastructure financially.
“Net neutrality is one size fits all. And guess what? One size doesn’t fit all,” insists Ben Verwaayen, chief executive of Alcatel-Lucent. He says the telecoms groups are the missing link in the value chain between the content providers and device makers.
The telecoms infrastructure needs more investment to meet demands for online data that is doubling even in advanced western countries such as the UK and US every year. As more parts of Africa and Asia come online, there are worries that the infrastructure will not be able to cope.
In what will appear tacit support for the cause of the larger telecoms groups, Dr Touré stresses the need to guarantee future investment. “Who is going to build the network? Will it grow without investment? No.”
Etno, the lobbying body for the large European telecoms operators, has proposed that the UN recognise their ability to charge content providers for prioritising traffic. Luigi Gambardella, board chairman of Etno, says operators’ revenues need to be connected to the investment needs caused by growth in internet traffic.
Stéphane Richard, chief executive of France Telecom, dismisses the suggestion that this is a “tax” on the internet. “I think that we are not in a business position that really gives us the possibility to obtain this from Google or any big traffic producer.”
However, critics say this could mean those who do not pay may be put in a “slow lane”. There are also complaints that its proposals would need a form of internet oversight that could be misused.
Even so, Etno believes it has the backing of countries in Asia and the Middle East, and is confident it can win support in North America and Europe in spite of initial misgivings among authorities.
The European Commission is still considering its position on such commercial arrangements. Neelie Kroes, the EU telecoms commissioner, told the FT that there was “scope for commercial negotiations to underpin investments that will allow all players in the value chain to benefit from the massive growth potential of the online economy”.
But Mr Cerf says that pricing structures are antithetical to the internet as they could stifle innovation. “When Larry Page and Sergey Brin started Google, they didn’t have to go and cut a deal with every ISP in the world. It’s a gun-to-the-head model to say: ‘You’re making a lot of money, give us some.’ An alternative would be to compete – improve your own value-added services.”
Many experts believe the meeting in Dubai could prove inconclusive.
Each member country has a vote in the ITU, with complicated pacts led by influential states already forming, but Dr Touré insists that there will never be an opposed vote during his tenure.
“No proposal will be passed without consensus,” he says.
But many observers believe this to be impossible given the extent of the debate as proposals stand, with talk among lobbyists now that controversial governance proposals, at least, could be postponed until next year.
The EU is firmly opposed to giving greater powers to the ITU to regulate the internet as a whole.
This will bring it into line with the US. Initial proposals published on August 3 say Washington will oppose any effort to increase the power of the ITU over internet governance or content. Robert McDowell, a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, said in June that any expansion of regulation to the internet needed to be stopped. “With the potential to grow larger quite rapidly, proposed ITR amendments that appear tiny today can be the most insidious and lethal to the spread of prosperity and freedom tomorrow,” he says.
Get alerts on Internet privacy when a new story is published