An Arab Spring for the internet?

February 18, 2013

This article originally appeared in the QF Telegraph, Issue 78: February 7, 2013.

When the United Nation’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) convened recently in Dubai, there were high expectations and high drama—not surprising, given that its World Conference on International Telecommunication (WCIT) would be held for the first time in almost a quarter century.

This meeting is the forum where the ITU adopts and amends its International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs), which govern how telecommunication networks of the 193-member countries develop reciprocal technical and payment protocols that allow global telecoms networks to function.

Given the long time lapse since the 1988 meeting, the focus here was whether, and if so how, the ITU would amend its ITRs to reflect the new digital realities of the internet, which didn’t even exist then. Surely, many observed, some updating of these regulations—along with reasserting the ITU’s continuing relevance—was the logical direction that WCIT should take.

As countries and regions began their painstaking preparations for WCIT many months ago, two key issues emerged.

One was that the United States, and allies such as the European Union and Canada, sought to advance their open access/minimal regulation philosophy by having the ITU maintain the status quo: namely, not adding any authority or language that would suggest a different regulatory scheme than in the old analog world.

China, Russia and the Arab states, in contrast, had been on the periphery of telecommunications development in 1988, but are eager to be taken seriously now. Not surprisingly, they viewed the downside of an open cyber space to be a security threat that in a matter of hours could cripple their ability to maintain political order.

But the second—and bigger—issue of contention was whether the ITU should expand its authority over the internet, in effect sending a signal to more authoritarian countries that they could assert greater control in the name of “cybersecurity.”

By a small majority, the Arab states, along with China and Russia, were able to achieve ratification by the ITU of an addendum allowing government oversight of “unsolicited bulk communication.” Yet 80 countries refused to sign up for this, viewing it as a pretext that governments might use to intensify internet monitoring and crackdowns, perhaps even flipping a switch to turn off the internet entirely (think Syria). Countries such as the US, the United Kingdom, India and Denmark walked out rather than be present while affirmative votes were cast.

Now, here’s the surprise. While virtually all the Arab states voted to have this addendum added, two stood with those who refused to be bound by the new ITRs.

In breaking with their Arab brethren, Qatar and Egypt emerged as new voices in international internet policy, poised to mediate the polar extremes that have framed the debate so far. As we watch these debates continue, careful attention should be paid to both.

Qatar may help organize Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries to advance their particular interests in internet commerce, which are less prominent in other Arab states. Egypt may move for more openness to demonstrate to the world that it really adheres to democratic principles.

The big question for the Middle East after this WCIT is whether the Arab states, going forward, will continue to be allied with the China-Russia axis, or instead will move more in the direction of the US and its friends.

Stuart Brotman is professor of communication in residence at Northwestern University in Qatar.