At a time when the British press is liverish with reaction to the Leveson report, it is worth noting the irony that an event of far greater global moment concerning the defence and propagation of a free press is passing almost without remark. At a conference that begins today in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 193 countries will decide whether the International Telecommunications Union, a UN agency, should update its International Telecommunication Regulations in order to start actively regulating the Internet. The web has long been shorthand for sprawling, anarchic ungovernability, a ‘nightmare’, as the Economist puts it, ‘for the tidy-minded, and especially for authoritarian governments.’ Indeed, the agenda appears at first to give some cause for concern; some 900 regulatory changes have been proposed covering the Internet, mobile roaming fees and satellite and fixed-line communications, and specific amendments from Russia, China and some Arab countries (17 of the latter pressing for ‘identity information’ about the senders of data) undoubtedly carry the insidious subtext of censorship and autocratic control.
Some of the most controversial proposals, however, address what some regard as the intolerable economic online free-for-all, until now viewed as inevitable in the web’s current unfettered form. European telecommunications providers and African and Arab countries have indicated their desire to see big content providers pay to send data across their networks, in a concept know as ‘sender pays’. Currently, the absurdity (as some see it) exists whereby an American web firm ‘pays no more to serve data to customers in Dhaka than in Detroit’. As Ethan Zuckerman, head of the MIT Centre for Civic Media, observed: 'In the developing world, Internet access is still very expensive for many people, and access to high-speed infrastructure is uncommon. While we’ve seen a great deal of progress, it’s worth asking whether the models that have worked so well so far will simply scale and include the whole world, or whether we do need to rethink payment and governance models.'
Others vehemently deny the logic of such a view. ‘What they neglect to observe is that in the Internet model, everybody pays to get on the Internet—[people at the] source and destination. The system is symmetric,” said Vinton Cerf, an original inventor of Internet protocols who now works for Google. But this, say detractors, is precisely the problem, because he would say that wouldn’t he: Google and its set of public and private sector partners in the U.S. presently enjoy the lion's share of Internet revenues – whether originating from marketing, advertising, transit and peering, infrastructure, software or hardware.
Looking past the initial understandable anxiety over press freedom, therefore, and other equally important debates emerge concerning finance, fairness and accessibility. The secretary-general of the U.N. International Telecommunications Union, Hamadoun Toure, said that any alleged limitations to web freedom are 'completely untrue' and predicted only 'light-touch' regulations. Such remains to be seen, and the activities of the conference (and some of its less scrupulous members) must of course be closely monitored. Given this caveat, however, the conference is perhaps better understood as an attempt through international consensus to further the nascent dialogue about how, why, and to what extent the seemingly boundless digital arena ought to be regulated. The force of Ethan Zuckerman’s view, no luddite he, must be consequently be allowed: ‘I worry that the answer pro-open-Net folks often give—‘The Net works well the way it does, let’s not tinker with the governance structures we’ve set up’—is too orthodox and limiting’.