Europe calls for global internet treaty

Europe has proposed a global Internet Treaty to protect the net from political interference and place into international law its principles of openness.

Europe has proposed a global Internet Treaty to protect the net from political interference and place into international law its founding principles of open standards, net neutrality, freedom of expression and pluralistic governance.

The draft law was compared to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty as the Council of Europe presented it to web luminaries from around the world at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Vilnius, Lithuania, this week.

Dignitaries warned that governments were threatening the internet with fragmentation by bringing it under political control.

The proposed Internet Treaty would require countries to sustain the technological foundations that made the network of networks possible.

"Openness and interoperability" and "network neutrality" would become two of 12 Principles of Internet Governance.

"The fundamental functions and the core principles of the internet must be preserved in all layers of the internet architecture with a view to guaranteeing the interoperability of networks in terms of infrastructures, services and contents," says the draft treaty.

The defining characteristic of the internet, that it left any information processing to the end points of the network and did not interfere with traffic that passed across it, was also proposed as a principle of net neutrality.

"The end-to-end principle should be protected globally," says the report.

Net neutrality has become an increasingly heated topic for debate, as internet giants such as Google discuss moves that critics say could lead to a "two-tier" web.

The proposed law would also require global co-operation in the protection of critical internet infrastructure. It would similarly preserve the multi-stakeholder system of governance that has forced governments to subordinate their desires to regulate the net to forums that give an equal voice to engineers and representatives of commercial and civil society.

The treaty would make the system of internet governance overseen by ICANN adhere to international human rights law. The treaty's principles would furthermore uphold rights to freedom of expression and association and require states to preserve "human dignity" and the "free and autonomous development of identity" on the internet.

Rolf Weber, law professor at the University of Zürich and one of the team of experts who drafted the treaty, told an audience at the IGF this week that it was like the 1967 Space Treaty, which decreed that the exploration of outer space should be done only for the benefit of all nations.

Space exploration should be done "without discrimination...on a basis of equality...and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies", according to the 1967 treaty.

The Internet Treaty would establish a principle of cross-border co-operation in the identification and neutralisation of security vulnerabilities. They should "co-operate mutually, in good faith" in protecting the trans-national internet from cyber attacks.

Elvana Thaci, the Council of Europe official co-ordinating the treaty's introduction, said it would require countries to share information about security vulnerabilities with one another and to take reasonable steps to encourage the private sector to do the same. But it would not mandate that companies share information about data security.

The proposal was made as the Internet Governance Forum, which attempted to introduce governments to the idea that internet regulation was a bottom-up, multi-stakeholder affair, reaches the end of its five-year mandate. The United Nations General Assembly will decide its fate on 22 October under pressure from some states to bring the internet firmly under government control.

The UN Secretary General has recommended the IGF mandate be renewed.

There is also said to be pressure, however, for the internet addressing system, run by ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) from the internet's spiritual home in California, to be made directly answerable to governments, perhaps under the UN.

The Internet Treaty would preserve the multi-stakeholder system of internet governance ICANN operates under US government edict in the interests of the worldwide internet community. It would not prevent the system being subsumed into a democratically accountable international body.

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