New treaty threatens the economic opportunities of a laissez-faire internet

AT the beginning of this year, in this very column, I outlined the threats to freedom online both in the UK and abroad through the International Telecommunications Union. Sadly, my predictions were correct. We are facing the risk of media regulation at home while an international treaty negotiation abroad threatens to regulate the internet as we know it. Both will not only impact freedom of speech, but will affect the way the way we communicate, conduct business, and seek information online.

Next week sees the start of the World Conference on Information Technology (WCIT), where the International Telecommunications Union will host the first International Telecommunications Regulations negotiations since 1988. These are in an international treaty in which telecommunications regulations are agreed. But this year, many countries are proposing Internet regulation – thereby bringing it into the scope of International Telecommunications Regulations and Union.

But whereas proposed regulatory regimes of financial services and the media, ill-conceived or not, have been prompted by economic crises and national scandals respectively, moves to create new oversights at WCIT have been prompted because of the internet’s overwhelming successes, rather than its failures.

Rather than embrace the economic opportunities that stem from the laissez-faire approach to the internet, authoritarian regimes and state-run enterprises have sought to use WCIT to regulate and rein in freedom of expression, a move that could see commercial contracts, content, and online traffic subject to global regulation. Whereas the online global community sees opportunities for civil society and economic growth in an open internet, these regimes see threats.

As information becomes more diffuse, certain regimes and state-run enterprises endeavour to maintain their monopolies. That is why states and special interests are seeking to halt the free flow of information, even if it means impeding technological innovation and commercial contracts. The WCIT marks a key opportunity for Britain and other countries that embrace free speech and free markets to defend against those that seek to undermine both. This is a process that must not be taken over by regimes and telecoms’ monopolies, but one that must acknowledge and respect the interests of stakeholders.

Whenever new regulations are proposed, British citizens and other stakeholders have the added benefit of providing scrutiny. The Leveson report and its aftermath is a case in point. At WCIT, the regimes seeking to overhaul the internet’s governance structure are seeking to do so because it currently underpins free and democratic societies. In Dubai, the British government will be representing more than just the interests of her people, but those that embrace the principles that we often taken for granted.

Dominique Lazanski is an independent consultant and head of digital policy for the Taxpayers’ Alliance.