"There are concerns that this conference might result in some sort of regulation that may threaten the internet's freedom and individuals' ability to get information over the internet freely without getting extra regulations and censorship on the content."

- Ahmed Mansoor, a freedom of speech activist

Delegates from 193 countries are meeting in Dubai to discuss the future of the internet. They will be negotiating a new International Telecommunications Treaty - which has not been updated since 1988.

The main debate at the conference is over internet freedom. The US and Europe want less internet regulation, while countries like Russia and China are accused of wanting more.

But the possibly bigger question of who controls the internet is also in play. The US in particular is criticised for dominating the way the internet is run.

Since 1947 a UN body called the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has been in charge of international technical standards.

Delegates from 193 countries have regulated everything from radio frequencies to satellite orbits. Their mission is to make sure networks and technologies easily interconnect. But according to internet giant Google, the ITU could be about to take steps to reduce the free flow of information on the web.

"There is a mood to change the governance structure of the internet from one that is multi-stakeholder system to one that is inter-governmental. And I think the fear is that the internet repression and censorship that is already going and the throttling of the speed of communication and widespread surveillance in certain countries will be legitimised if they change the system."

- Richard Rogers, University of Amsterdam

It says if proposals being heard at the ITU conference in Dubai are accepted, there will be an increase in censorship and national regulation.

But other countries censor content on the internet as well.

Known as the 'Great Firewall of China', the People's Republic has perhaps the world's most impressive example of online control. In addition to banning social networking sites, China also has tens of thousands of monitors who snoop and often hack into people's emails.

Following protests in 2009, the Iranian government intensified its efforts to censor the web. It has rounded up and jailed bloggers and internet dissidents. The country also often shuts down access to the internet when it expects anti-government protests.

In Belarus, the government has also noticed the opposition's use of the internet. Websites are sometimes blacked out, opposition voices are monitored and the government even uses websites like Twitter to intimidate journalists and activists.

And last month, the United Arab Emirates showed where it stands on internet censorship. It issued a decree making it a crime to insult or criticise the country's leaders online.

We ask should limits be placed on the web? And if so, how and by whom? What does it all mean for freedom of speech online and is it being threatened with over-regulation?

Inside Story, with presenter James Bays, discusses with guests: Paul Conneally, head of communication for the International Telecommunication Union (ITU); Ahmed Mansoor, a human rights activist, who was arrested last year on charges of running a website that the UAE government clamped down on; and Richard Rogers, a professor of New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam.


"There has been a lot of misinformation and misrepresentation fankly, about what is going to be discussed at the conference. Our secretary general Dr Dr Hamadoun Toure has repeatedly said for the last 12 months that we are not going to discuss Internet governance. It is a fact that no matter what comes out of this conference, it will absolutely have no impact on the freedom of expression."

Paul Conneally, International Telecommunication Union

 

Source: Al Jazeera