We all saw the images cross our television screens over a year ago – these were the images of the Arab Spring. Average citizens, students, and professionals took to the streets to demand greater freedom, democracy, and change from their governments. For the participants in the uprisings that swept the Arab world, one of the most important tools at their disposal was Internet access. SOCIAL MEDIA AS A FORCE FOR CHANGE Social media is a very powerful mode of communication and, like it or not, it is here to stay. Governments realizing the power people have when afforded Internet access have made every attempt to try to cut it off and suppress its influence.
In a lead article in the January/February 2011 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine titled, “The Political Power of Social Media”,author Clay Shirky, Professor of New Media at New York University, mentions a very interesting statistic in his piece. He says, “Since the rise of the Internet in the early 1990s, the world’s networked population has grown from the low millions to the low billions.” Professor Shirky continues to say that,“…social media have [sic] become a fact of life for civil society worldwide…” With this many global citizens now having Internet access, make no mistake about it, the “social media genie” has already been let out of the bottle – and it is not going to be put back.
The protesters of the Arab Spring know very well how powerful social media can be and they were able to convey their message to the world through this medium via the Internet. The pictures of the drama unfolding in the streets were uploaded and viewed on YouTube and many individuals on the ground kept us informed through real-time Twitter feeds. No, this was not the first instance of social media being utilized to force change; but to the degree to which it was used, and the number of people and countries involved, it was unprecedented.
All of this prompted me to think and ask: Was Internet access a human right for the protesters of the Arab Spring? Do citizens have a human right to be free from tyranny and repression? In addition, if so, by what means do they have to change the government they are living under. The Internet, if used properly and for good intent, can serve as a powerful tool for change. If individuals have a human right to be free from abusive regimes, and Internet access is a tool at their means to initiate change, then why would Internet access not be equally deemed a human right? It is certainly difficult not to respond to these questions in the affirmative knowing what we all know now. UNITED NATIONS WEIGHS IN Those who believe the United Nations is about to take over the Internet need to step back, take a deep breath, and closely examine the facts.
The mass hysteria began last December at a meeting of the International Telecommunications Union (I.T.U.). Russia and China led efforts to seize control of the oversight function of the Internet handled by a consortium of public and private groups and transfer the authority to the I.T.U.
The conclusion drawn by many of the anti-U.N. advocates could only be one thing: The U.N. is “calling the shots” on all matters related to the Internet, and this was their way of taking control of it.
Furthermore, one of the opponents Vinton “Vint” Cerf - the so-called “father of the Internet” and vice president at Google - fanned the flames at a congressional hearing when he testified by saying the following: “The open Internet has never been at higher risk than it is now. A new international battle is brewing – a battle that will determine the future of the Internet.”
This kind of rhetoric ignited the passions of those who would like nothing better than to see the U.N. become a marginalized global body, or more extremist viewpoints foresee it eliminated altogether.
Opinion pieces in the print media with titles such as “Get the UN’s hands off the Internet” http://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/hands-internet-article-1.1108624 and blog posts online were equally as vitriolic. SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT The I.T.U. December meeting documents were leaked last month, and they revealed no indication whatsoever that the I.T.U. has any plans to take control of the Internet. Moreover, the U.N. agency stated it does notseek Internet governance authority.
The hallowed principles of free speech and expression cherished by every American, and many of our fellow global citizens, will remain protected as the U.N. stands with the U.S. in protecting these ideals. In addition, the I.T.U. specifically believes in an individual’s right to access the Internet as a human right.
When he was elected in 2006 as Secretary-General of the I.T.U., Dr. Hamadoun Toure made it known, when addressing Internet access, “we are not talking about I.T.U. taking over governance.”
In a speech Dr. Toure gave recently in Canada, he indicated that those who believe the U.N.-I.T.U. are looking to take over the Internet are “simply ridiculous.”
Earlier this year, the I.T.U. issued a statement that read in part: “ITU has always been an advocate of an equitable and democratic global governance framework – and was multi-stakeholder from its inception.” LOOKING AHEAD This December the I.T.U. will meet in Dubai at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). An important piece of business is on the agenda; the International Telecommunication Regulation (ITR) – the treaty that was adopted in 1988 and lays out the I.T.U.s’responsibilities – will be up for revision. By all accounts, there does not appear that there will be any changes granting the I.T.U. greater authority as it relates to Internet governance. Any proposals relating to this matter can be expected to be summarily dismissed.