Online world anxious over new U.N. regulations

A picture shows a man working at the headquarters of Superfast Cornwall, funded by the European Union's biggest single investment in high speed broadband infrastructure, in Cornwall on November 13, 2012.

For the first time in almost 25 years, a U.N. agency opens talks today aimed at updating global telecommunications regulations. The conference, which is expected to stretch over two weeks in Dubai, is already shaping up as a fight over Internet freedom.  

Among the issues being considered by regulators from 193 countries: Spam. Many view unsolicited and unwanted email as an international scourge, because inboxes can be flooded with everything from bogus bank account warnings to Viagra ads sent by servers in faraway lands.

The U.N.'s International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is highlighting that as one of the issues it hopes to deal with, but critics caution that there could be more than meets the eye. They contend it could just open the door to more censorship by giving countries an excuse to block content they don't like.

Representatives from the U.S. and the European Union worry that the regulators could end up harming the free flow of information and commerce if they go too far.

The EU's rep says rather bluntly: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Google has warned that the "open internet" could be threatened by the ITU talks.

Terry Kramer, who is representing the U.S. at the meetings, concedes that there have been major changes since the last time the ITU updated the global telecommunications treaty in 1988. He says there are obvious needs to fight hacking and other cyber crime, but vows to "vigorously oppose" proposals that threaten internet "flexibility."

Kramer points to proposals that would allow countries impose charges for sending traffic over international networks, and warns they could be used by some governments to stifle things they don't like. Proponents argue that some of the huge profits made by such companies as Google could be shifted toward upgrading infrastructure to help more people access the net.

As the head of the U.N.'s International Telecommunications Union sees it, internet access remains largely a privilege of the "rich world." He told today's opening ITU session that 4.5 billion people remain offline.

About the author

Bob Moon is Marketplace’s senior business correspondent, based in Los Angeles.

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