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Internet : a new dimension for international politics

The Internet has become an important domain for political discourse and an apt tool for mobilization; Arab Spring activists’ use of social media is a clear contemporary example. In light of the recent World Conference of International Telecommunications (WCIT-12), it is obvious that the regulation of access and use of the Internet has also become a tool of political leverage for Western governments.

From December 2nd to December 14th  in Dubai, the WCIT-12  hosted the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) – the UN specialized agency that allocates the appropriate hardware for telecommunications, defines the technical standards to ensure networks and technologies interconnect, and strives to improve access to ICTs worldwide. The WCIT-12 was a key opportunity to negotiate and set new contemporary boundaries to internet access and use : the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs), the treaty-level provisions that look to fulfill the ITU goals, had in fact not be modified since 1988.  However, countries such as the U.S., Canada, Australia and the UK, refused to ratify  the new ITRs drafted at the WCIT-12.

Why?

The answer lies in great part in the fact that countries do not have equal rights to developing the Internet’s technical foundations. Because of its initial funding for ARPANET ( a precursor to the Internet that contributed to solidifying its technical foundations), the U.S. has the privilege  of deciding of the bodies that can regulate the net’s address system.

Thus, when on the last day of the WCIT-12, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Sudan called for equal rights for all governments to manage “internet numbering, naming, addressing and identification resources”, and attempted to amend the ITRs section regarding the rights of member states to telecommunications networks, the US and its allies responded violently.   The issue was called to an unprecedented vote by Iran. The African bloc won the vote and the US and its allies declared that they would not sign the new treaty.

The US argued that the amendments were a clear attempt to extend ITRs’ jurisdiction to Internet governance and content regulation. US Ambassador, Terry Kramer, further argued that the US believed that Internet policy must be multi-stakeholder driven. Kramer said,

Internet policy should not be determined by Member States, but by citizens, communities, and broader society… Consultation from the private sector and civil society is paramount.

The irony is unmistakable. Pro-Internet freedom countries are insisting on denying the freedom to access telecommunications networks. The WCIT-12 makes it clear that the Internet has become a means to coercively enforce concepts of justice on perceived human-rights abusers.  Nonetheless, if what is being called to question is the right to infrastructural access to telecommunications, Kramer did have a point. There needs to be more research on how equal infrastructural access amongst Member States of the ITU affects their respective citizens.

-Tiffany Lam

(Featured photo:AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Anjali, Buzzom)

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