In 1823 the German poet Heinrich Heine wrote, “wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings.” While he predated the Holocaust of WWII and the Little Red Book years of China, he did know of a few examples like the Inquisition where his conviction knew a proof. The desire to control information has leeched from the printed page it seems to the streaming text of computer screens. While much of the free world enjoys clear access to the internet, many places to do not and their governments are not shy about presenting this desire to control the internet to the rest of the world on a stage as prestigious a UN summit.
Just recently in mid-December of 2012, the United Nations WCIT (World Conference of Internet Telecommunications) met in Dubai to discuss a wide range of proposals and initiatives related to the internet, broadband, and various telecommunications issues that rated a slot on the agenda. Essentially, however, discussions were based around the International Telecommunications Regulations, an international treaty signed by 178 nations. Though the fearful specter of a government-controlled internet pops in and out of the headlines from time to time, it made its way to the summit on the coattails of members like Russia and China.
With the “Great Firewall” of censorship in China and Russia only fairly recently emerging from the Stalin years where poets were tortured and killed for their writings, it probably shouldn’t be surprising that these countries would have the audacity to say, in their various languages, “we should agree to control what can be viewed on the internet.” It appears that a proposal was flung about saying something along these lines, though with more cloaked and insidious language like “internet governance shall be effected through the development and application by governments” which amounts to censorship pure and simple.
Russia and China were not alone; other nations have been associated with this leaked proposal that was withdrawn according to the news feeds of ITU (the International Telecommunication Union which is an agency of the United Nations) and The National. Yet, other nations did support the proposal such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, and Algeria. Egypt was also listed as a supporter, but they deny having ever supported this proposal.
While this proposal initially leaked to WCITLeaks was taken off the table it seems, other damaging initiatives were discussed such as the Arab State’s proposal for the ITU to become the provider of IP addresses which was categorically thwarted by the U.S. Such a proposal could result in state surveillance and a government take-over of private information. The possibility of such an occurrence seems preposterous in a free society; however, the fast and furious nature of WCIT proposals may allow for errors in judgment when it comes time to vote or sign on to treaty revisions.
As broadband spreads and more citizens gain access to the wealth of information the internet provides, other citizens of other nations are certainly not enjoying full access to information. No matter how speedy their broadband, their access is limited by their governments. The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research released an infographic about the summit demonstrating that the world nations with the “largest filters on the internet” include China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Burma, Yemen, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Bahrain, Ethiopia, and Vietnam. How and who decides what portions of the internet their respective constituencies may see varies from nation to nation, but in this age of information, the desire to control knowledge is as modern an issue as it is an ancient one. As future summits are slated, more proposals are surely in the works even now.