10 December 2012

Rwanda: Worries About the UN's Plan to Regulate the Internet

Today, more than two billion people are online, about a third of the planet. In Rwanda, according to the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Agency (RURA), at the end of September there were 760,450 Internet subscribers, but there are much more users (an Internet café or a company are considered as a single subscribers, but there are of course many people using their connection).

The Internet empowers everyone to speak, create, learn, and share; it is controlled by no one -- no single organization, individual, or government. However, recently prominent voices from the IT sector and bloggers have voiced concerns that this 'Internet freedom' is at risk of being curtailed.

The UN, through its telecom arm, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), is bringing together regulators from around the world to review International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs) treaty signed in Melbourne (Australia) in 1988. This is being done during the World Conference on International Telecommunications 2012 (WCIT-12) held in Dubai from 3 to 14 December 2012.

As a number of sources have pointed out, there are a wide range of proposals from dozens of different countries who belong to the UN, and most of them will never see the light of day or become international law. But there are critical proposals that should be of concern to users.

"Some people are worried because they think that these regulations may limit freedom of expression," says Jean-Baptiste Mutabazi, RURA's Head of Communication and Media. "However, the Secretary General of ITU has clearly stipulated in his opening speech that: 'Nothing can stop freedom of expression, and certainly not this conference.'"

One of the reasons to be worried of what the ITU might do is that some UN member states would like the power to restrict free speech and information, and their proposals are aimed at making it easier for them to do that. If regulations were changed, however, the fear is that it could become even easier for those countries to filter and block specific online content, rather than having to use brute force to shut off the Internet altogether - something that is much more obvious than a secretive filtering or controlled-access scheme, and therefore easier to criticize or defend against.

"Governments are trying to use a closed-door meeting of the International Telecommunication Union to further their repressive agendas. Accustomed to media control, these governments fear losing it to the open Internet," said Vint Cerf, Google's Chief Internet Evangelist. "Several authoritarian regimes reportedly propose to ban anonymity from the web, making it easier to find and arrest dissidents."

The second major threat that the ITU poses is that a number of member states want to move to a system called "sender pays," which is more like how telecom networks operate. It would require most popular websites such as YouTube or Facebook to pay fees, as if they were making phone calls, in order to reach people across borders. This could limit access to information -- particularly in emerging markets.

If you've ever experienced the nightmare of international roaming charges for a cell phone, then you probably have a sense of why this could be a bad thing.

"It is still a proposal; I don't think it will be accepted," says RURA's Mutabazi. "The reason is that YouTube and Facebook, even Google, make money from marketing due to many people visiting their websites. If there is a charge to the data they send, it means that they have to cover this cost, plus benefits, by charging access to their website. Charging access to the website means few people will be visiting their sites. This is however in contrary with their business model. Let's wait and see."

In phone networks, when a call gets made from a customer of one company to a customer of another, the calling party pays. As the phone call traverses the networks, so does the money.

If John, a customer of MTN, calls Claire, who is an Airtel customer, then John pays MTN, and MTN pays a fee to Airtel for their efforts in connecting the call. This is "sending party network pays." It's a natural fit to the way phone networks work, but unnatural in the IP world.

Whether ITU accepts any of the recommendations or proposals that have been submitted to it remains to be seen, but unfortunately - given the secrecy with which the negotiations are being conducted - we may not know the answer until it is too late.

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