Not making the call: New telecoms treaty to ban VOIP-Marketplace

June 28, 2012

A new treaty could cost you Skype, freedom or both

John Moe

Marketplace: June 25, 2012

 An Egyptian protester streams a demonstration via Skype as people gather in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. If changes are made to an international communications treaty, Internet phone calls could be seen as a threat to state-owned phone systems. [Mohammed Abed/Agence France-Presse]

An international telecommunications treaty is being re-examined. Why should you care? Because it could affect the future of the Internet.

The International Telecommunications Union has been around since 1865, establishing rules for countries to follow. The last updates to the rules came in 1988.

Harold Feld is with the public interest group Public Knowledge. He says, “Those set the framework for how when we make a long distance call to Europe or Africa or Asia, the companies pay for those rates. Right now, nobody does that for Internet traffic.”

Now, some countries may look to make big changes to the agreements. For instance, Internet phone calls could be seen as a threat to state-owned phone systems. Feld says, “What you may have is it’s going to be more expensive for some services, or it may be very difficult to do things like Skype from the United States to some other countries.”

Another area getting attention is Internet freedom. Russia has called for an open internet UNLESS someone’s undermining the government. In other words, not an open Internet.

Milton Mueller is with Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies. He says those changes wouldn’t affect the treaty as a whole. “The current regulations, which are based on the old telephone model, already allow any national government, including us, to block or cut off international telecommunication traffic, and that already applies to the Internet in the sense that if you cut the cord, the Internet doesn’t run as well as your voice telephone service or the traditional physical circuit.”

Nevertheless, President Obama has vowed to reject any treaty with such language in it and Republicans and Democrats alike are backing him up. Says Mueller: “It plays into these deep seeded fears that both the left and the right in the U.S. have about you know, Russia and China and the United Nations taking over this free and wonderful Internet. In terms of exerting censorship control over the Internet, it’s really not going to do all that much.”

Even if Russia can already shut off the Internet under the current treaty, further wording that gives Russia more power to do that will make a big difference, says Harold Feld. “If this language gets into the treaty, then it becomes much more acceptable for countries to be able to do this, and it becomes more like, well, that’s wrong, but it’s not a human rights violation.

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.

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