The dawn of the virtual Big Brother?

Expanding the International Telecommunications Union’s mandate to cover the internet would endanger the collective power of the World Wide Web.

This December, the way the world currently uses the internet could drastically change – potentially for the worst. Global regulations – creating a virtual “Big Brother” – are proposed that could impact how much freedom of access there is on the internet.

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a UN body tasked with developing technical standards, will convene from 3-14 December in Dubai to review the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs), which were first adopted in 1988. While worldwide communication has gone through a revolution since then – with the internet now connecting more than 2 billion people – the regulations have not changed.

Indeed, a debate is needed, but the problem is the lack of transparency of the process. Only until recently, the ITU – which includes 193 countries and 700 fee-paying company members – has led a closed-door negotiation process, blocking inputs from civil society and everyday citizens. Many organisations campaigning for freedom of expression consider the ITU not to have the expertise or the wider representation to single-handedly decide on the future of something as complex and decentralised as the internet. After pressure from civil society organisations such as the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), the ITU revealed a draft of the new regulations and launched a website for public feedback in July.

However, this draft seems to confirm existing worries by the public. For example, it includes a new definition of internet spam that would include mass e-Cjmails legitimately used by companies, civil society organisations, or trade unions. In addition, governments such as China and Russia have put forth some concerning proposals that would sharply curtail the public’s access to the internet and its open use for all (viewable thanks to These include a Chinese proposal that would give governments full control over the information and communication infrastructure in their country or a Russian proposal that would allow governments to restrict public access to international telecommunication services when it is used to “divulge information of a sensitive nature.”

So, what can we do?

Fortunately, the ITU is facing a huge community of activists and civil society organisations who are willing to come together to show the ITU that the internet is not theirs to determine. The public wants the ITU to make all their documents publicly available and to allow for an open and substantive consultation on the proposed regulations.

The US and the EU have been surprisingly absent throughout this process. We need to urge governments who value freedom of expression to articulate their opposition to the expansion of the ITU mandate and to establish an open, participatory process to discuss a review of the ITRs.

Transparency International joins the international campaign supported by ITUC, CDT and Access, a global movement dedicated to internet freedom, in standing up against the unilateral moves of the ITU.

CDT and Access have created an impressive list of things you can do to make a difference. These include:

  • Sign the petition – Access has an online petition aiming at 40,000 signatures and currently at over 35,000.
  • If you work for a civil society organisation, get your organisation to sign on to the joint letter (joining Article 19, Human Rights Watch and Consumers International, among others).
  • Write blog posts or contact journalists to write on this topic and raise awareness.
  • Use CDT’s one-pagers and letter templates or Access’ talking points for civil society to call attention to your government and urge them to delay the ITU process.

The internet is the space for freedom of expression and collective action – the proposed regulations are too big a decision to be made behind closed doors. Get involved and show that the internet belongs to all of us.

Carousel image credit: getButterfly

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