Internet 'founding father' sounds alarm as closed-door UN treaty talks begin

Google's chief Internet evangelist Vint Cerf underscored the importance of maintaining an open Internet in a company blog post published hours before countries convened to update a global telecommunications treaty.

Cerf is typically referred to as one of the "founding fathers" of the Internet because he helped design its architecture and key Web protocols. In his latest blog post, Cerf said the openness of the Web has spurred innovation and enabled people to get their voices out — but he warned that some countries' proposals for the treaty conference in Dubai threaten to put those benefits in jeopardy.

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"Starting in 1973, when my colleagues and I proposed the technology behind the Internet, we advocated for an open standard to connect computer networks together. This wasn’t merely philosophical; it was also practical," Cerf wrote. "This openness is why the Internet creates so much value today."

"But starting in a few hours, a closed-door meeting of the world’s governments is taking place in Dubai, and regulation of the Internet is on the agenda," he said. "The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is convening a conference from Dec. 3-14 to revise a decades-old treaty, in which only governments have a vote."

Some of the countries' proposals threaten to increase online censorship and cut off Internet access in their countries, he cautioned.

Over the last few months, Cerf has sounded alarm in op-eds over the effect the treaty conference could have on the future of the Internet and how it's governed. He has also criticized the ITU for holding the conference behind closed doors and keeping countries' proposals for the treaty confidential, which he says shuts the public out of the debate.

Cerf encouraged people to sign Google's online petition that advocates for preservation of a free and open Internet. The search giant has put together a virtual map that shows where people who have signed the petition or used its hashtag #freeandopen are located.

Google is one of the most outspoken critics in the corporate world about the conference. Facebook on Monday warned its users about the controversial proposals put forward by other countries and encouraged them to sign Google's online petition.

"An open Internet enables the more than one billion people who use Facebook to connect and share online and has created economic, political and social opportunities that have benefited societies around the world," the social networking company wrote in a post on its European public policy team's page.

The 193 member countries of the ITU, a United Nations agency, will spend the next two weeks updating the International Telecommunications Regulations treaty for the first time since 1988. 

The treaty governs how telephone calls and other communications traffic are exchanged internationally, though some countries like Russia are pushing for the treaty's scope to cover the Internet as well. The U.S. has made clear that it plans to block these attempts.

Google has four representatives — the most of any company — on the U.S. delegation for the treaty conference. The search giant has warned that one of the treaty proposals floated ahead of the conference has suggested imposing a fee on companies like YouTube and Skype for delivering their data-heavy Web content across international Web networks.  

The ITU has pushed back against claims that the treaty threatens to clamp down on free speech online and argued that such concerns are unfounded. The U.N. agency noted that any proposal for the treaty would have to win "massive" support from several countries to be included in the final updated version.

-- This post was updated at 12:35 p.m. and 1:56 p.m.