A conference sponsored by the United Nations in Dubai this week bears careful watching. The good news is that Thai representatives at the ITU Telecom World 2012 are well aware of the hidden agenda of the conference. The bad news is that some influential governments and self-interested groups want to use the meeting to undermine the freedom of the internet.
Russia and China will try to ram through changes that will reduce the freedom of the internet to the censorship of the lowest common denominator of the most repressive United Nations members.
We have been here before. In the 1980s, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) was hijacked by zealots who were determined to break the back of a free press. Their soothing, seductive line was that the pre-internet media was controlled by big western interests and must be reined in to provide an opportunity for "third world" media to get their message across. Journalists should be licensed by government, to ensure approved messages were heard. What they meant, of course, was that a free press threatened dictators and tyrants by making information freely available.
The Unesco hijacking eventually ended, and the unit went back to its proper tasks. But the idea of government control of media on a global scale lives on. Events like the recent posting of a scurrilous YouTube video about the Muslim prophet Mohammed give impetus to demands for censorship on an international scale. This is what lies behind this week's attempt to control the internet by a small but sophisticated group of countries.
The would-be controllers of the Dubai conference have worked in recent months in two ways. The first is to revive the reliable anti-Americanism of Unesco's 1980s propaganda.
The US "controls" the internet, goes the second tack, by controlling the main machines that run the network of networks. The world deserves to share this control. The problem with this argument is obvious: No nation, group or individual ever has been banned from the US-run internet, which is run on a strict laissez-faire basis. But the goal of the "reformers" is precisely to start using sanctions on those they judge to be bad.
There is no doubt that bad content is found on the internet. It also is found in the mail and over telephones. Ironically, the ITU was formed to foment global freedom of mail delivery and telephone use. Mail flows to and from enemy nations, as do telephone calls.
Now, however, the would-be ITU controllers want the group to halt communications, because they happen to be on the internet. We do not hear that the US satellite system is bad because its phones carry nasty information.
Most people agree that freedom of information has limits. The Thai government fortunately realises that this is a far cry from agreeing to place those limits in the hands of a committee established and enforced by some of the worst human rights violators. Group Capt Anudith Nakornthap, the ICT minister, noted last week that there must be discussions within the country before Thailand can agree to any such inhibitions.
He could go further and reject the underhanded attempts this week in Dubai to enforce international censorship. Like all countries, Thailand has its own issues. In fact, Thailand has unfortunately proved that internet censorship is effective at the national level, which is where this issue should rest.