Google's Cerf Warns that ITU Treaty Talks Bring Threat of Web Censorship

By Todd R. Weiss  |  Posted 2012-12-03

Google's Cerf Warns that ITU Treaty Talks Bring Threat of Web Censorship

As the International Telecommunication Union was preparing to start 11 days of meetings on Dec. 3 in Dubai, Vint Cerf, Google's chief Internet evangelist and one of the fathers of today's Internet, sent out a heartfelt message to remind conference participants that the whole world is watching their actions.

His fear, wrote Cerf in a Dec. 2 post on the Google Official Blog, is that some of the world's leaders want to "justify the censorship of legitimate speech, or even cut off Internet access in their countries."

That, wrote Cerf, must be fought by every Internet user and prevented from happening by contacting government officials and making their voices heard in support of an open and free Internet.

The problem, he wrote, is that some of the governments from around the world, which are meeting at the World Conference on International Telecommunications conference in Dubai, oppose such freedoms.  The meetings are being held Dec. 3-14 to "revise a decades-old treaty, in which only governments have a vote," wrote Cerf. "Some proposals could allow governments to justify the censorship of legitimate speech, or even cut off Internet access in their countries."

The threats are real, according to Cerf. "You can read more about my concerns on, but I am not alone. So far, more than 1,000 organizations from more than 160 countries have spoken up too, and they're joined by hundreds of thousands of Internet users who are standing up for a free and open Internet. On an interactive map at, you can see that people from all corners of the world have signed our petition, used the #freeandopen hashtag on social media, or created and uploaded videos to say how important these issues are."

By 5 p.m. Eastern time on Dec. 3, it had garnered more than 1.8 million online signatures. "Please make your voice heard and spread the word," Cerf wrote.

The ITU treaty talks have the potential to turn away from the concept of openness that was the fundamental principle behind the Internet’s original design, Cerf wrote. “Starting in 1973, when my colleagues and I proposed the technology behind the Internet, we advocated for an open standard to connect computer networks together," wrote Cerf. "This wasn't merely philosophical; it was also practical."

The idea was to use protocols that were "designed to make the networks of the Internet non-proprietary and interoperable," he wrote. "They avoided 'lock-in,' and allowed for contributions from many sources. This openness is why the Internet creates so much value today. Because it is borderless and belongs to everyone, it has brought unprecedented freedoms to billions of people worldwide: the freedom to create and innovate, to organize and influence, to speak and be heard."

Google began publicizing the ITU meetings in late November to try to build public attention for the meetings. The meetings, which are held behind closed doors, will discuss how the Internet should be regulated in the years to come.

For Google, the consequences of any tightening of Internet use or increases in regulations could have a direct and marked effect on the search giant's operations, revenue and independence, so it's apparently taking no chances of being blind-sided.

Google's Cerf Warns That ITU Treaty Talks Bring Threat of Web Censorship

The ITU World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) runs through Dec. 14. The conference will review the current International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs), which serve as the binding global treaty designed to facilitate international interconnection and interoperability of information and communication services, including the Internet.

The last time the ITRs were negotiated was in 1988, way before today's modern Internet. "There is broad consensus that the text now needs to be updated to reflect the dramatically different information and communication technology landscape of the 21st century," the group said on the ITU Website.

To make its own case known about the importance of Internet freedom and openness, Google created a Website where individuals can learn about steps they can take to ensure that the Internet doesn't restrict their own activities due to government actions. "Governments alone, working behind closed doors, should not direct its future," wrote Google. "The billions of people around the globe who use the Internet should have a voice."

Google's message comes just as the ITU, a United Nations agency empowered to address information and communication technologies and issues for 193 member nations and more than 700 private-sector entities and academic institutions, is about to gather to talk about a wide range of topics regarding Internet freedom, operation and more.

The problem, according to Google, is that not all governments around the world support a free and open Internet. Governments including Iran, Cuba, China and more block and control access to the Internet for their citizens, moves that go against freedom and choice. About 42 nations filter and censor content, according to Google. "In just the last two years, governments have enacted 19 new laws threatening online free expression."

Those threats have to be resisted the company says. "The Internet empowers everyone—anyone can speak, create, learn and share," wrote Google. "It is controlled by no one—no single organization, individual or government. It connects the world. Today, more than two billion people are online—about a third of the planet."

Other proposals at the ITU meetings would require services like YouTube, Facebook, and Skype to pay new tolls in order to reach people across borders. This could limit access to information—particularly in emerging markets, according to Google.

The ITU forum "is the wrong place to make decisions about the future of the Internet," according to Google. "Only governments have a voice at the ITU. This includes governments that do not support a free and open Internet. Engineers, companies, and people that build and use the Web have no vote. The ITU is also secretive. The treaty conference and proposals are confidential."

Instead, the 2 billion users of the Internet from around the world should be included in the discussions, which is why Google is sounding its alarms now, the company said.

This is not Google's only effort lately in its fight to maintain Internet freedom. In September, Google was named as a charter member of the new Internet Association, the first trade association that directly represents companies that conduct their business online, as well as their customers and partners. The new group, which also includes powerful online companies such as Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Salesforce and Yahoo, aims to organize to ensure that their business concerns and interests are being heard and recognized by political leaders across the United States.

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