Europe has proposed an Internet Treaty to protect the net from political interference which threatens to break it up.
The draft international law has been compared to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which sought to prevent space exploration being pursued for anything less than the benefit of all human kind. The Internet Treaty would similarly seek to preserve the Internet as a global system of free communication that transcends national borders.
An early draft of the Treaty has come into our possession as governments around the world pile pressure on the United Nations to bring the Internet under political control. Their various hare-brained schemes threaten to make communication on the Internet conditional on criteria set by narrow political interests.
Elvana Thaci, the legal expert overseeing the Treaty's introduction at the Council of Europe, told THINQ the internet could not be taken for granted any longer.
The Treaty would prevent states from blocking communications on the Internet and make them co-operate in protecting the web from being rent asunder by growing security threats.
William Dutton, director of the Oxford Internet Institute, said: "Everyone's worried about national governments asserting regulatory authority over the Internet."
Dutton cited the example of the UK's Digital Economy Bill, by which the British government had sought to regulate the Internet unilateraly, bypassing the international system of governance that has for 20 years seen the network managed by an open forum of techies, business people, civil groups and governments: the 'multi-stakeholder approach', as it is known.
"It is just one example where national governments see the Internet becoming too central and too significant for them to not get involved," he told us from the Internet Governance Forum in
Governments are putting pressure on ISPs to control the net and holding them to account for the information that passes across it. The same is true of the UK as it is in China, though the latter is more frequently criticised for its attempts at censoring people's communications.
Law agencies are meanwhile trying to create a universal internet ID scheme so they can have a foolproof way of identifying anyone on the net. This is regardless of the Internet being both a public and a private space, where people ought to be free to associate and communicate without being monitored and made to answer to the authorities.
It is a "worrisome" trend, said Dutton, and one that could have a "chilling effect" on the future of communications.
Bill Graham, head of global strategy at the Internet Society, said governments are pressing the United Nations to put the Internet under direct political control.
"We are concerned that the process will leave the mutli-stakeholder model and will go into the push and pull of international politics," he told us.
The multi-stakeholder system of control, conducted through the Internet Governance Forum and overseen operationally by ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), means any new ideas for regulating the net are vetted by all interested parties, including governments. If governments are allowed to take sole control of the net, everyone else will barred from meetings where decisions that decide its future are made.
The United Nations decides next month whether to renew the IGF's mandate or whether questions of Internet governance should be for governments to decide alone. Governments are also asking whether they should assert more control over ICANN.
World government of the Internet
The Internet Treaty will attempt to set the Internet's multi-stakeholder government in international law. It will effectively create a world government of the Internet, and establish principles by which it must be governed "as a public asset for the Internet community as a whole".
The Treaty's General Principles of Internet Governance will protect the technical foundation on which the network was based, demanding that it operate using open standards - that all networks connected to the Internet remain interoperable with all other networks.
The principle of net neutrality will be established in international law, ensuring that the network will not discriminate against the traffic that passes across it. Any discrimination will be left to the end points, the clients, for people to decide for themselves what they censor, what communications they will or will not countenance.
"The end-to-end principle should be protected globally", says the draft law. Both these and other principles seek to prevent the Internet becoming fragmented and thus losing the inherent power on which it has thrived, commercially, culturally and politically.
The Treaty also proposes making the system of internet governance adhere to human rights law, protecting the principles of freedom of expression and association that have arisen naturally from the net's non-discriminatory technology.
It will also force governments to co-operate with one another to tackle the net's security vulnerabilities. It should force them to exchange data about security problems and work collaboratively to solve them and keep net criminals and military aggressors in their animal pens.
"Being a trans-national communication network, the challenges... of the Internet can be effectively addressed only on a multilateral basis," says the draft Treaty.
States co-operate to protect the global internet "mutually, in good faith" and in collaboration with all interested stakeholders, it says.