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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Tame the Internet (and Cage It)?

I sometimes have this sense that the world is changing much faster than we may realize.  At times I will consider the world my parents lived in, for example.  It looked quite different than the world I lived in.  My mother died in 2002, and I've often envisioned myself writing her a letter to tell her about all the things that have happened just since she's been gone.  It's a long letter!

Of course the Internet has had an enormous role in changing our world.  It's impact is so far reaching it would be hard to imagine much of anything in life that hasn't been touched by it in one way or another.  From publishing to food to medicine and education, the Internet has played a role.  Even history itself has been impacted by the Internet.  We have web sites like, that put together the whole of a genealogy in minutes.

Even information itself has been changed by the Internet.  Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, recently said that we now create as much information in just two days as was created in the entire history of mankind up to 2003.  That's something like five exabytes of data that we create in just two days. (  He went on to say that he assumes that "the world is not ready for the technology revolution that is happening to them ..."  I think he's probably right about that.  I'm not sure the world could be ready.  And I'm certain that the world is largely unaware of this technology revolution.

Most of us are unaware of how large the Internet is or how far-reaching it is.  We see some of it's impact on our own personal lives ... how we shop, interact with our friends, save pictures, etc.  But the fact is that our perception of the Internet is, for the most part, limited to what we can acquire from own personal interface with it.  But it's safe to say that it's much bigger than that.  In fact, today the Internet reaches around the globe. 

There is no country on earth that doesn't have the Internet.  And most of what's on the Internet is available to everyone, everywhere.  Most of the time, we assume that's a welcome thing.  After all, who would oppose the Internet?  But indeed countries like China have been fighting with companies like Google for years.  They're fighting about content and access.  And those fights are beginning to occur elsewhere as well.

In the U.S., we take up fights about Internet content and access.  I'm doing work for a major bank right now, and am required to use the bank's computer network all day long.  Hardly a day goes by that I don't try to go to a site which the bank has blocked.  It's not just blocking pornography you see.  It's also blocking any site that the bank thinks might tempt me to waste my time.  It's blocking sites like or Yahoo! mail.  It blocks the messages center on LinkedIn, and all of Facebook.

I suppose that most of us don't think too much about these forms of censorship.  We assume that what China's doing to it's people - like blocking Facebook - doesn't impact us.  And of course we have ways to get around censorship at our places of employment.  We can simply go home and use our personal computer to access what we want.  But something happened recently that I suspect could eventually change all that.

There is something called the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).  It's a group of the world's leading countries that operates under the realm of the United Nations (U.N.).  It's members are the same 193 countries that comprise the U.N.  Anyway, the ITU's purpose is to manage the world's telecommunications network.  Most of this is done through an annual conference, which happened to be in Dubai this year.

The head of the ITU is a man named Hamadoun Toure'.  He is a Mali native trained in the Soviet Union.  And he deceptively led the ITU to establish a significant beachhead in censoring the Internet.  In fact, so great was his deception that the United States and it's allies were completely outmaneuvered.  Under his leadership, authoritarian regimes, led by China and Russia, schemed to use the U.N. to claim control over today's borderless Internet.  In the run-up to the Dubai conference, dozens of secret proposals by these authoritarian governments were leaked online.

These proposals were controversial and alarming.  When asked, Mr. Toure' assured everyone that his agency operates by consensus - and not by majority vote.  He also pledged that the ITU had no interest beyond telecommunications to include the Internet.  But he kept neither promise.  A majority of the 193 U.N. member countries approved a treaty giving governments new powers to close off access to the Internet in their countries.

The vote was called late one night at the conference in Dubai.  It was first described as a non-binding "feel of the room on who will accept" - on a draft giving countries new power over the Internet.  But the result was that 89 countries voted in favor of the draft, and just 55 (including the U.S. and it's allies) were against it.  The authoritarian majority of Arab countries, China, Iran, Russia, and much of Africa all voted for it.  This so-called "draft" suddenly became a legitimate final treaty.  It takes effect in 2015 for these countries.

The treaty document extends control over Internet companies, not just the telecoms.  It declares: "All governments should have an equal role and responsibility for international Internet governance."  This is a complete reversal of a privately (non-government) managed Internet.  Authoritarian governments will invoke this new U.N. authority to take control over access to the Internet.  They now have the U.N.'s blessing to censor, monitor traffic and even prosecute those they deem to be "troublemakers."

And lest we think this doesn't impact us because we live in the U.S. --- consider how the Internet operates.  Today's smoothly functioning Internet is actually a system that includes 40,000 private managed networks among 425,000 global routes that ignore national boundaries.  We can expect this new treaty to split those networks by a digital "iron curtain."  One result is most likely to be that the Internet will become less resilient.  And of course, web sites will no longer be global in nature. 

Make no mistake about it; the world is changing.  And it's changing faster than we think.  It might be good to think about how it's changing.  It might be good to consider whether or not we're ready for these changes.  But I seriously wonder if any of us can really begin to comprehend how the world is changing ... much less actually be ready for such change.

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