The "father of the Internet" has issued a plea to "keep the Internet free and open." On Sunday, Google Vice President Vinton Cerf posted the call on his company's blog, just as a potentially threatening international conference on the Internet is convening.
The International Telecommunications Union is conducting a closed-door meeting this week and next in Dubai, and one of the topics includes regulation of the Internet. The ITU meeting is intended to revise a decades-old treaty, and there is concern among Internet-watchers that some proposals for the revision could allow countries to censor legitimate speech, cut off access , or otherwise threaten the Internet's openness.
Over 1,000 organizations in more than 160 countries have voiced their concerns about the closed-door conference in Dubai and what it can mean. Google has set up a Website called Take Action, in support of an open Internet.
Cerf has become known as one of the Net's parents because of his pioneering work on Internet protocols and structure, and on the development of the first commercial e-mail system.
In an essay posted last week on CNN.com, Cerf said the "free and open net is under threat," and noted that of the 72 countries studied by the Open Net Initiative, 42 filter and censor content -- even without counting countries that systemically shut down a free Net, such as North Korea or Cuba.
He noted that the ITU meeting is intended to renegotiate a decades-old treaty that had been oriented toward basic telecommunications, not the Internet. However, some of the proposals floating around explicitly call for governmental censorship and control of speech on the Internet, or provide for legal rationalization for cutting off the Internet, such as the cutoff recently imposed in Syria.
Other proposals call for abolition of user anonymity, which would allow countries to find and punish dissidents, or would impose tariff fees for transporting content across borders. There will also likely be an effort to transfer domain regulation from the current private sector system to an agency in the United Nations.
Cerf's position is that the ITU has a role to play, and that it has helped to manage radio spectrum and telephone networks in developing countries, thus providing order to those markets and helping to spur investment.
But, he wrote, "this inter-governmental agency is the wrong place to make decisions about the future of the Internet," in that only governments have a vote there -- not the users or makers of the Net.
By contrast, Cerf said, the current governing bodies all have a "multi-stakeholder model," including the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the Internet Governance Forum, and the Regional Internet Registries. Additionally, these private governing bodies espouse a transparent and open governing policy, while the conference and proposals in Dubai are confidential and closed.