Keeping the Internet Open

As many readers know, the Internet as it exists today had its beginnings in a project sponsored by the US Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency, called ARPANET, the first packet-switched computer network, which got its start back in 1969.  Although there is a certain amount of specious lore about the project (e.g., the network was designed to withstand a nuclear war), reliability and robustness have always been important design goals.  Open and flexible standards have also been sought; in the 1970s and 1980s, when the technology was being developed, there were many different, competing vendor standards for computer networking.  (I wrote a bit about this in a post last year on the history of Ethernet.)  Getting IBM, DEC, Data General, Pr1me, and other vendors’ machines to talk to each other was a significant step forward.

Naturally enough, given its history, the governance of the Internet has always been a US-centric affair.  That has been fortunate, I think.  The US government has largely resisted attempts to politicize Internet rules, and this is one case where the principle of free speech, protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution, has been largely honored.  The openness and freedom  of the Internet have played a big part in making it the incredibly valuable and empowering resource it is today.

From time to time, governments and other entities have floated proposals to “internationalize” the Internet by giving overall control of its governance to some international body, perhaps part of the United Nations.  A new proposal of this kind will be introduced at the World Conference on International Telecommunications, convened by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU, a UN agency), and being held in Dubai from 3-14 December 2012.   Although the ITU has historically been rather secretive about its deliberations, which are behind closed doors, pre-conference leaks indicate that several member states intend to introduce proposals that would impose more controls on Internet content.

Vint Cerf, Google VP and Chief Internet Evangelist, one of the Internet’s technical pioneers, and a recipient of the Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery, has written a post on the Official Google Blog on the value of an open Internet.

Our protocols were designed to make the networks of the Internet non-proprietary and interoperable. They avoided “lock-in,” and allowed for contributions from many sources. This openness is why the Internet creates so much value today. Because it is borderless and belongs to everyone, it has brought unprecedented freedoms to billions of people worldwide: the freedom to create and innovate, to organize and influence, to speak and be heard.

The ITU performs many useful technical coordination functions; it helps in managing radio spectrum and telephone networks, for example.  But only governments have a voice at the ITU, and some of those governments are, to put it mildly, not entirely dedicated to openness and freedom.   In another article, at the CNN site, Cerf elaborates on some of the issues involved.

Several authoritarian regimes reportedly propose to ban anonymity from the web, making it easier to find and arrest dissidents. Others have proposed moving the responsibilities of the private sector system that manages domain names and internet addresses to the United Nations.

To expect the ITU’s process to consistently support the principles and ideals of openness and freedom requires (to borrow a phrase from J.R.R. Tolkien) not that disbelief be suspended, but hanged, drawn, and quartered.

There is a campaign underway to promote the goal of an open Internet; the campaign is being tracked with an online, interactive map.  Google is also sponsoring a petition.  If you support the preservation of a free and open Internet, I invite you to sign the petition.

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