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Cutting Our Own Net

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It's probably unintended but ironic nonetheless that the WCIT-12, or World Conference on Telecommunications, is meeting this week in Dubai, a nation where workers rights are enjoyed by the privileged few.

Like its fellow Gulf state Qatar, most of the heavy lifting in the emirate is done by guest workers who routinely surrender their passport on taking up employment -- a sure-fire way of ensuring industrial peace.

I was in Doha last week meeting with workers building some of the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup. They are denied wages, medical care, adequate housing -- and the right to ask for them. The sad truth is more people will die building the facilities than will take to the field when the whistle blows.

The way we are raising awareness of these abuses is through the single greatest enabler of free political discourse I have seen in my life time -- the Internet; we are using the Internet to give these workers a voice, tell their stories and call on all fair-minded people who love their football to speak up on their behalf.

Which brings me to Dubai and this week's meeting, where a little understood United Nations body is presuming to debate the rules that should apply to the Internet.

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) was established in the 19th century to regulate telegrams. In the 20th century it broadened its authority to govern telephony protocols, providing the framework to allow nations to exchange faxes and phone calls.

Now it presumes to extend its ambit to the way the Internet operates.

Its come on the scene a little late -- the Internet has evolved almost organically, engineers, scientists, content providers -- a platform that is open to anyone to engage with, participate in, influence through their involvement. Almost by design it is not constrained in form or structure.

This is the value it has delivered -- human freedom. Politically, we have seen the impact of social media organizing people through the Arab Spring.

Across the globe it has also been a potent organizing tool for workers in the developed and developing world -- breaking down the tyranny of distance and the dangers of real-world assembly, to allow the powerless to fight for their rights.

The ITU meeting is not a front-on attack on these rights, but its impact could be just as damaging.

In essence the ITU wants to regulate the way the net operates, establishing protocols for the structure of service delivery and appropriate content.

These of course will be determined by member states of the ITU -- national governments and several hundred large corporations, many of them large foreign telcos wanting to find new ways of monetizing the net.

The nations pushing the agenda the hardest -- China, Saudi Arabia and Egypt -- have one thing in common, a proven track record in restraining Internet access in times of political turmoil.

On one level, the ITU will not change things -- these nations can already intervene and block local net access -- it occurred just last week in Syria.

But by regulating the Net through national governments this would become effectively a right of any government, rather than the global outrage it currently represents.

The ITU says that all matters will be determined by consensus -- and we know that most developed nations are sceptical about the proposals.

The ITU also says that the Dubai Conference is about extending access to the Internet for people who don't yet have it. But there is nothing on the table that would actually achieve this -- quite the opposite in fact.

The global labor movement is deeply concerned by the implications that the secret meeting has upon Internet use.

That's why the International Trade Union Confederation has been campaigning to Stop the Net Grab.
As General Secretary, I have written letters to the head of the UN, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to raise my concerns about the proposed changes and the effect they would have.

The points I raised with the head of the UN and the changes that the global union movement is most concerned about are laid out below.

If accepted at the WCIT-12, the proposed changes would allow:
- Governments greater powers to restrict or block the Internet
- Creation of a global regime of monitoring Internet communications
- Require that the Internet only be used in a 'rational' way
- Governments to shut down the Internet if there is the belief that it may interfere in the internal affairs of other states or that information of a 'sensitive nature' may be shared
- A new pricing regime which would slow Internet growth, especially in poorer countries
- Redefinition of 'spam' that would allow governments to restrict or totally block large-scale email outs that unions and NGOs regularly conduct

The regulations and their implications are not in line with what the Internet represents -- or has delivered over the past 30 years.

We need a multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance, not vested interests in making citizens pay for formerly free services or restrictions to their capacity to share information.

It's in the interests of the workers risking their lives to build the Qatar facilities and it's also in the interest of every citizen who values their online freedom.

To find out more, go to the petition at www.change.org/netgrab