Google is using its power, influence and online might to sound the alarm for Internet openness and freedom to individual users around the world as leaders of many nations prepare to meet to discuss how the Internet should be regulated in the years to come.
"Starting Dec. 3, the world’s governments meet behind closed doors to discuss the future of the Internet," wrote Google in a post on Google+. "This meeting of the International Telecommunication Union, or ITU, will take place in Dubai. Some governments want to use this meeting in Dubai to increase censorship and regulate the Internet."
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.
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 (ICT) 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. "Some governments want to use a closed-door meeting in December to increase censorship and regulate the Internet," wrote Google. "Join together to keep the Internet free and open. Make your voice heard."
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 defended, 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."
At the ITU meetings in Dubai, participants will be brought together to renegotiate a decades-old communications treaty that could include changes that would increase censorship and threaten innovation, according to Google. "Some proposals could permit governments to censor legitimate speech—or even allow them to cut off Internet access. Other proposals 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."
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.
The new group has a three-pronged policy platform: protecting Internet freedom, fostering innovation and economic growth, and empowering users.
In the last couple years, the arrival of several proposed and controversial federal laws, including Stop Online Piracy (SOPA) and Protect IP (PIPA) acts were seen as real threats and were major wake-up calls for Internet companies, according to Beckerman.
The two bills were temporarily shelved by Congress last January after protests and opposition—including a voluntary Internet blackout in which some 7,000 sites such as Wikipedia made themselves inaccessible online for 24 hours—caused lawmakers to take a new look at the approaches of the proposed legislation.
SOPA aimed to give copyright holders broad legal powers to go after sites selling or distributing counterfeit content by forcing Internet service providers to block access to the sites and other sites from linking to them. Major Internet companies, civil liberties groups and security experts are bitterly opposed to the bill for what they view as unnecessarily broad powers granted to intellectual property owners to target pirates and Draconian measures that would stifle innovation and open communication on the Internet. PIPA was the Senate's version of SOPA.