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‘Father of the internet’: Why we must fight for its freedom

Editor’s note: Vinton Cerf is Google’s chief internet evangelist. He, along with American computer scientist Bob Kahn, is often called one of the “fathers of the Internet.” Cerf is credited with helping to develop the protocols and structure of the internet and the first commercial email system.

(CNN) — The internet empowers each one of us to speak, create, learn and share. Today, more than two billion people are online — about a third of the planet.

The internet has become one of the motors of the 21st century economy, allowing all of us to reach a global audience at a click of a mouse and creating hundreds of thousands of businesses and millions of jobs.

According to a new OECD study, the net already accounts of 13% of American business output, impacting every industry, from communications to cars, and restaurants to retail. Not since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, or Alexander Graham Bell the telephone, has a human invention empowered so many and offered so much possibility for benefiting humankind.
Vinton Cerf
Vinton Cerf

Today, this free and open net is under threat. Some 42 countries filter and censor content out of the 72 studied by the Open Net Initiative. This doesn’t even count serial offenders such as North Korea and Cuba. Over the past two years, Freedom House says governments have enacted 19 new laws threatening online free expression.

Some of these governments are trying to use a closed-door meeting of The International Telecommunication Union that opens on December 3 in Dubai to further their repressive agendas. Accustomed to media control, these governments fear losing it to the open internet. They worry about the spread of unwanted ideas. They are angry that people might use the internet to criticize their governments.

The ITU is bringing together regulators from around the world to renegotiate a decades-old treaty that was focused on basic telecommunications, not the internet. Some proposals leaked to the WICITLeaks website from participating states could permit governments to justify censorship of legitimate speech — or even justify cutting off internet access by reference to amendments to the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs).

Read more: Why aren’t robots doing my dishes yet?

Several authoritarian regimes reportedly propose to ban anonymity from the web, making it easier to find and arrest dissidents. Others have proposed moving the responsibilities of the private sector system that manages domain names and internet addresses to the United Nations. Yet other proposals would require any internet content provider, small or large, to pay new tolls in order to reach people across borders.

The upshot? The next garage-based phenomena would face a steep and probably insurmountable financial hurdle in its effort to become the next YouTube, Facebook or Skype.

Let us be clear: We do not advocate for an end to the ITU. The UN agency has helped the world manage radio spectrum and wired and wireless telephone networks, bringing much needed investment to the developing world.

But this inter-governmental agency is the wrong place to make decisions about the future of the internet. Only governments have a vote 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 multi-stakeholder model of internet policy development that is the hallmark of the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the Internet Governance Forum, the Regional Internet Registries, among many others, is the only sensible way forward.

Transparency and openness are keys to informed participation in policy making. The proposals for amending the ITRs are not generally available to the public or other stakeholders. The treaty conference and proposals in Dubai are formally confidential. We consider this to be a serious deficiency and an inhibitor to thoughtful policy development.
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