Why the world is arguing over who runs the internet. By Wendy M. Grossman
The ethos of freedom from control that underpins the web is facing its first serious test, says Wendy M. Grossman
WHO runs the internet? For the past 30 years, pretty much no one. Some governments might call this a bug, but to the engineers who designed the protocols, standards, naming and numbering systems of the internet, it’s a feature.
The goal was to build a network that could withstand damage and would enable the sharing of information. In that, they clearly succeeded - hence the oft-repeated line from John Gilmore, founder of digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation: “The internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” These pioneers also created a robust platform on which a guy in a dorm room could build a business that serves a billion people.
But perhaps not for much longer. This week, 2000 people have gathered for the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to discuss, in part, whether they should be in charge.
The stated goal of the Dubai meeting is to update the obscure International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs), last revised in 1988. These relate to the way international telecom providers operate. In charge of this process is the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), an agency set up in 1865 with the advent of the telegraph. Its $200 million annual budget is mainly funded by membership fees from 193 countries and about 700 companies. Civil society groups are only represented if their governments choose to include them in their delegations. Some do, some don’t. This is part of the controversy: the WCIT is effectively a closed shop.
Vinton Cerf, Google’s chief internet evangelist and co-inventor of the TCP/IP internet protocols, wrote in May that decisions in Dubai “have the potential to put government handcuffs on the net”.
The need to update the ITRs isn’t surprising. Consider what has happened since 1988: the internet, Wi-Fi, broadband, successive generations of mobile telephony, international data centres, cloud computing. In 1988, there were a handful of telephone companies - now there are thousands of relevant providers.
Controversy surrounding the WCIT gathering has been building for months. In May, 30 digital and human rights organisations from all over the world wrote to the ITU with three demands: first, that it publicly release all preparatory documents and proposals; second, that it open the process to civil society; and third that it ask member states to solicit input from all interested groups at national level. In June, two academics at George Mason University in Virginia - Jerry Brito and Eli Dourado - set up the WCITLeaks site, soliciting copies of the WCIT documents and posting those they received. There were still gaps in late November when .nxt, a consultancy firm and ITU member, broke ranks and posted the lot on its own site.
The issue entered the mainstream when Greenpeace and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) launched the Stop the Net Grab campaign, demanding that the WCIT be opened up to outsiders. At the launch of the campaign on 12 November, Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the ITUC, pledged to fight for as long it took to ensure an open debate on whether regulation was necessary. “We will stay the distance,” she said.
This marks the first time that such large, experienced, international campaigners, whose primary work has nothing to do with the internet, have sought to protect its freedoms. This shows how fundamental a technology the internet has become.
A week later, the European parliament passed a resolution stating that the ITU was “not the appropriate body to assert regulatory authority over either internet governance or internet traffic flows”, opposing any efforts to extend the ITU’s scope and insisting that its human rights principles took precedence. The US has always argued against regulation.
Efforts by ITU secretary general Hamadoun Touré to spread calm have largely failed. In October, he argued that extending the internet to the two-thirds of the world currently without access required the UN’s leadership. Elsewhere, he has repeatedly claimed that the more radical proposals on the table in Dubai would not be passed because they would require consensus.
These proposals raise two key fears for digital rights campaigners. The first concerns censorship and surveillance: some nations, such as Russia, favour regulation as a way to control or monitor content transiting their networks.
The second is financial. Traditional international calls attract settlement fees, which are paid by the operator in the originating country to the operator in the terminating country for completing the call. On the internet, everyone simply pays for their part of the network, and ISPs do not charge to carry each other’s traffic. These arrangements underpin network neutrality, the principle that all packets are delivered equally on a “best efforts” basis. Regulation to bring in settlement costs would end today’s free-for-all, in which anyone may set up a site without permission. Small wonder that Google is one of the most vocal anti-WCIT campaigners.
How worried should we be? Well, the ITU cannot enforce its decisions, but, as was pointed out at the Stop the Net Grab launch, the system is so thoroughly interconnected that there is plenty of scope for damage if a few countries decide to adopt any new regulatory measures.
This is why so many people want to be represented in a dull, lengthy process run by an organisation that may be outdated to revise regulations that can be safely ignored. If you’re not in the room you can’t stop the bad stuff.
Is that Israeli Botox behind your burka?
Here’s a factoid about the Middle East that may have slipped by you while focusing on Iran’s nuclear program, Syria’s massacres, Egypt’s Islamization and Israel’s response to Mitt Romney’s recent visit: The highest consumption of beauty products and cosmetic surgery in the world today exists in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
This is surprising on many levels, and I admit to having been puzzled when I heard about it — since the only benefit I see in veils is the freedom not to wear make-up. This is particularly true these days, as was pointed out brilliantly by the late, great Nora Ephron, who bemoaned the endless time a woman has to spend on hair, nails and skin so as not to feel ungroomed. Personally, I can’t think of anything better than a burka for solving that particular problem. Apparently, however, rich Saudi ladies view it differently.
To add giggle to guffaw, the country in the region with the biggest booming cosmetic surgery tourism industry is Lebanon. This necessitates travel from Riyadh to Beirut to have “work done.” And since a Saudi woman needs her husband’s permission to get a passport, it makes sense that she would want to look her best for him when she removes all her coverings. One false move, or new wrinkle, and such a privilege might be revoked without as much as a by-your-leave.
Well, girls, the news out of Beirut is not good. No, I’m not referring to Hezbollah strongholds scattered throughout civilian areas, nor to unrest next door, with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad still slaughtering any rebel he can sink his bombs and bayonets into.
I’m talking about something much more up close and personal. The Lebanese branch of the Campaign to Boycott Israel Supporters has been uncovering some very disturbing trade secrets in the medical community. In particular, it has revealed that many of the companies that provide high-quality equipment and products used in the cosmetic surgery industry are — gasp! — Israeli.
Being the sensitive guy he is, CBIS activist Samah Idriss kept the scandal under wraps (no pun intended) until this month, so as not to shame any of the Lebanese distributors of the Zionist merchandise. After all, they might not have been aware that the equipment was produced in one of four companies based in “Occupied Palestine.” (It should be noted here that these companies are located in Yokneam, a town near Haifa, indicating what we already knew — that the CBIS movement considers Israel’s very existence to be illegitimate.)
So, instead of going public with the information, Idriss first approached the Lebanese medical community to inform it of the situation, and warn it not to continue to participate in the outrage. He then demanded that Lebanese doctors cease holding conferences sponsored by the Israeli firms, and refrain from promoting their products on TV commercials.
Shocked at the suggestion of collusion with anything having to do with Israel, the director of the Lebanese Society for Dermatologists vehemently denied knowledge of the origin of the high-end equipment and medications that have been making Middle Eastern women beautiful. In his defense, he pointed to the fact that the Lebanese Health Ministry and Order of Physicians are the bodies responsible for approving equipment and making it legally available on the market. In other words, if it’s out there on sale, how was he supposed to know that it came from Israel?
Idriss now says he will no longer remain silent about this travesty, and expects the Lebanese government and health authorities to confront and eradicate it.
This is not only bad news for the affluent Arab Botox crowd, who may soon be left with no alternative but to go under the knife without the benefit of Israeli ingenuity and entrepreneurship. It is also an impossible mission for the CBIS.
In the first place, to be successful at implementing the boycott of anyone and anything connected to Israel, this group would have to rob the societies in which it operates of a lot more than smooth cheeks and enhanced breasts. This is because every computer, phone or other piece of machinery in the world contains an Israeli part in it and/or Israeli innovation behind it.
Secondly, the CBIS should not underestimate the power and will of women on a vanity trip — even those who are not permitted to expose their faces in public.
Ruthie Blum is the author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring,’” now available on Amazon and in bookstores in Europe and North America.
Yet, denied citizenship in his United Arab Emirates birthplace, he has become one of a number of stateless people in the oil-rich country who have acquired the nationality of a group of islands with which they have no ties. His goal: to secure the official identity he needs to travel and access basic services.
“We’re seeing much more of a security state in the Gulf,” says Kristian Ulrichsen, a Gulf expert at the London School of Economics. “Regimes feel more threatened and more concerned over who is in and who is out.”
Ahmed’s unusual tale holds a mirror to the legal and social troubles that face hundreds of thousands of stateless people, known as “bidoun”, across the Gulf, which have intensified with the uprisings across the Arab world. In Kuwait, some members of the 105,000-strong bidoun population have been arrested after street protests against the government’s reluctance to offer citizenship. In the UAE, rights activists have raised concerns over what they say is the possible deportation of a bidoun political campaigner detained last month.“Either I should bury myself and die or try to survive,” Ahmed says of the decision.
The term bidoun – “without” in Arabic – refers to long-time residents whose ancestors failed to apply for formal identity papers as the discovery of oil prompted the rapid transformation of the region from a Bedouin culture to an urban economy. Without these basic documents, they have since struggled without secure healthcare, education and jobs.
While the public demonstrations of Kuwait’s bidoun that began early last year have not been repeated in other countries, stateless people are found across the Gulf. The UN estimates that Saudi Arabia is home to 70,000 of them. Between 30,000 and 100,000 more are estimated to live in the UAE.
Uprisings across the Arab world have widened the schism between the bidoun and the region’s wealthy nationals. Increased spending by Gulf states on salaries and subsidies to quell the possibility of unrest – with pay rises of up to 120 per cent last year for some government workers – have made it increasingly attractive to be a citizen.
“As the value of having Gulf citizenship has increased, the disparity between the haves and the have-nots has gone up,” Mr Ulrichsen says.
The Arab revolts have also made the bidoun more vulnerable to security-conscious governments suspicious of perceived outsiders and alleged enemies within. Kuwaiti authorities, for example, say the bidoun have been infiltrated by imposters from countries such as Iraq and Syria, who destroy their passports so they can ultimately claim nationality.
In the UAE, the bidoun’s difficulties have surfaced in the curious case of the Comoros passports. At least a thousand stateless residents have taken the documents, says Zoubert A Soufiane Al Ahdal, Comoros ambassador to the UAE.
Bidoun in the UAE say the Comoros documents make it easier for them to meet tougher official identity requirements for securing papers such as vehicle renewals – and perhaps even eventually, somewhat paradoxically, a UAE passport.
It is unclear who is paying for the passports: two of four bidoun interviewed by the Financial Times said they thought the UAE government had paid for theirs. Ambassador Ahdal denied this, while the UAE authorities declined to comment.
While the Comoros passports seem on one level to offer a little respite for the bidoun and a convenient partial solution for the UAE government, some rights activists say moves by stateless people to secure foreign nationality have a darker dimension that has grown in significance since the Arab uprisings began.
Disturbed by small murmurings of political dissent and in particular by the activities of suspected Islamists, the UAE authorities have begun using nationality as a legal tool as Qatar did in 2005, when it revoked the citizenship of as many as 6,000 people.
The UAE government last year revoked the citizenship of seven members of al-Islah, an Islamist organisation, turning them into bidoun and arresting many of them later for refusing to sign undertakings that they would take on a new passport.
“Wherever citizenship is exclusive it can be used as a weapon,” says Michael Stephens, Gulf expert at the Royal United Services Institute in Doha.
In another UAE case, Human Rights Watch said last month that Ahmed Abd al-Khaleq, a detailed UAE-born bidoun campaigner, now fears deportation on the basis of his recently acquired Comorian nationality. Mr Abd al-Khaleq was one of five pro-democracy activists imprisoned last year for insulting the UAE’s leaders and later pardoned.
The UAE authorities declined to comment on Mr Abd al-Khaleq’s case. Officials have previously said thousands of other bidoun have been given UAE nationality, after a 2006 pledge by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the president, to resolve the problem once and for all.