If you think the great firewall of Thailand restricts your access and freedom on the internet, you may not have seen anything yet. A meeting under way in Dubai threatens yet again to place all of the internet in the hands of a UN body. The lead members of this telecoms summit have worked in the shadows, but make no secret of their aims. China, Russia and a number of Mideast countries want to impose crushing information bans. Their goal is to make one government's protest into everyone's mandatory censorship.
The meeting is called the World Conference on International Telecommunications 2012 (WCIT). Its stated purpose is to "upgrade" the little-known, 147-year-old agency now under UN aegis, the ITU. This vital, quiet International Telecommunication Union was known for decades as the agency keeping the mail and telephones working across international borders. It assures that mail from Taiwan reaches China, that telephone calls from Pakistan connect to India.
This week and next, some governments propose to extend the ITU's authority to the internet. According to several proposals leaked from secretive committees drawing up the new rules, the regulations try to put all internet regulation under the ITU. The UN body would also assume the dubious right to tax internet service providers, and companies providing content, including search engines and media groups.
For all the wrong reasons, this is a siren's song for many governments. As the WCIT begins, the Thai government still has not committed itself to the only rational and democratic response, a strong and loud vote of "no".
On the surface, it may sound enticing. If the Thai government objects to a certain web page, it needn't block the page for Thai readers; it can shut it down everywhere. Officials need to realise that this works 200 different ways. Any tinpot dictator who objects to a Thai web page, even an official government statement, could wipe it off most or even all of the internet. Local censorship for political purposes is insidious _ by Russia and China, and by Thailand. Worldwide censorship is onerous and must not be supported by the government.
Behind closed doors for the past two years, Russia, China and a number of Arab states have conspired on the changes they want, and how to get them. All these countries pushing for a new treaty already censor the internet heavily. It is hardly admirable that they want to close information sources to others as well. A particularly troubling proposal is for every internet user to have an official ID _ the better to track pesky anti-government bloggers, of course.
The good news from Dubai is that many governments and internet groups are fighting the changes. Google has begun a grassroots opposition movement, and internet pioneer Vincent Cerf will be in Dubai to rail against "this breed of dinosaurs, with their pea-sized brains".
Secretary-General Hamadoun Toure of the ITU said last week he believes there is no chance of such a treaty passing with any substantial show of unanimity. Any government backing these dreadful proposals will have to give up the right to be called democratic.