Posted on Thursday, 13 December 2012 18:05

Internet freedom on the operating table

Gemma Ware

Sudan, Algeria, Russia, the UAE and Saudi Arabia want to push for more global control of the internet/Photo©ReutersAre we about to enter an era of regulated internet? The US government is worried that talks taking place this week in Dubai could see the extension of rules designed in the 1980s to regulate telecoms companies, to internet providers.

The US ambassador to this week's World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), Terry Kramer, says proposals put forward could have a negative impact on internet freedom, particularly in Africa. "The internet has thrived when it has been free and open," he told The Africa Report. "We don't want to put into practice something that says that the internet is regulated," he said.

If changes make it into the treaty, due to be signed by Friday, it could mean all internet service providers, universities and governments that run private networks could be subject to rules that have previously only applied to telecoms providers, such as mobile phone companies. It could open up governments to greater control of internet traffic flows, and start opening the door to regulate content.

Africa's internet is still very nascent and only 0.27% of the world's top million websites are registered on the continent. But there is a lot at stake for those looking to develop Africa's internet. With the number of internet users per year growing at 35%, compared to 10% in Europe and 4% in the US, emerging economies are going to be at the forefront of future growth in internet services, particularly via mobile.

African countries have sent big delegations to the WCIT. It's clear that some countries – including Sudan and Algeria – had sided with proposals put forward earlier this week by Russia, the UAE and Saudi Arabia to push for more global control of the internet. These are strong-arm states with formidable security services, always keen to spy on the activities of their citizens – particularly those wanting to repeat the euphoria of the twitter and facebook-fuelled Arab spring. Other countries, such as Kenya – which is aiming to have 100% internet penetration by 2017 – have stood up this week to argue against the ITU's regulation of the internet.

Another US concern is over proposals for a 'sending party pays' system that would allow telecoms companies to charge app developers and content providers to have their content delivered abroad. This could mean universities that put up content and courses for free online, would be charged a fee – and could eventually roll back services, or put them behind a paywall. It would also impact Africa's growing growing cohort of app developers in places like Nairobi and Accra, who could see themselves being charged for use of their content elsewhere in the world.

The US is concerned that the conference – the first time the regulations have been amended in 24 years – is trying to fix something that isn't broken. "There's more downside in a lot of the decisions we're taking than upside," says Kramer. He is willing to walk out on the treaty if it includes a form of internet regulation – something that has been voted against by both the US Congress and Senate in recent weeks.

The US government still has a guiding steer on the internet, with Sophie Bekele, founder of DotConnect Africa, a Nairobi-based organisation bidding to manage a future .africa domain name – a bid challenged recently by the African Union - says she would prefer the ITU not to deepen its oversight to include non-telecoms companies. "We are supporting the status quo as the cost benefit of a change is too high. Issues that touch on censorship ought to be managed properly so that the gains and freedoms that the internet has achieved over the years are not reversed," she said.

A diet of acronym soup makes deliberations at the Dubai conference hard to follow for the unitiatied in the complex world of telecoms regulations. But the WCIT decision on Friday could have lasting consequences on the freedom of the internet, particularly in African countries where governments have already flexed their muscles by banning social media websites and arresting troublesome bloggers. By including the internet in this global treaty we may not see regulation start to happen overnight, but it could set us down a dangerous road.

Gemma Ware

Gemma Ware

Gemma Ware is business editor of The Africa Report magazine, where she has worked since 2008. She coordinates the magazine's business pages and writes on a range of subjects from the continent's telecoms revolution, to private equity and African stock markets.

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