Proposals to place the internet under the control of a UN technical body could restrict political freedoms and harm civil society, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) warned on 12 November 2012.
The TUC has joined a global campaign - co-ordinated by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) - against plans to regulate the internet that are being put forward by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and due to be discussed in Dubai next month.
ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow launched Stop the Net Grab today at a press conference in London,alongside Paul Twomey, the ex-head of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the body which co-ordinates the allocation of internet addresses worldwide. Joining them via a video link from California was Dr Vint Cerf who was one of the people behind the invention of the internet in the 1970s.
The ITU is a UN body, set up initially to regulate telegrams, and later telephones and faxes. A coalition of countries including China, Russia and Iran is now seeking to give the ITU and ultimately individual governments, the power to control internet use, regulating not just the network infrastructure, but the internet uses people and organisations are allowed to make.
The TUC believes that these proposals threaten to undermine the benefits that an open internet has delivered for ordinary workers around the world. If the ITU proposals came into force, internet provider companies would be obliged to monitor data and restrict their services to only those uses deemed 'rational' by the government of that country.
Subsequent changes to charging models for the internet being lobbied for by a European group of telecoms operators as well as countries eager for a tax on internet usage could see customers paying much more for connectivity, or being forced onto a second-class restricted service, warns the TUC.
These changes could also hit users from developing countries particularly hard, and cut them off from the benefits that global connectivity can bring to their communities.
Commenting on the campaign launch, TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said: "An open internet has so far provided a platform for political freedom around the world, and has enabled civil society groups such as unions and charities to compete on a more level playing field with governments and vested corporate interests.
"An ITU regulatory regime would give governments the power to restrict the free use of the internet - something that would be a major blow to workers and human rights activists in countries with repressive regimes. It's no coincidence the main backers of these proposals include China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt."
The ITU has publicised its plans for regulation, but the actual details and positions of member countries remain secret ahead of the December meeting. Unlike many other UN conferences, civil society has no access to the process, not even as observers, and virtually no public consultation has taken place. Participation is limited to governments, with observation limited to corporates paying high registration fees.
No attempt has been made by the ITU or most governments to discuss the proposals with unions representing workers in the telecoms, internet or other affected sectors, says the TUC.
Unlike many other UN decisions, member states have no veto, so if the coalition of repressive states behind many of the proposals gets its way, the regulations will change for everyone.
Brendan Barber added: "These decisions will have a huge impact on freedoms and the everyday use of the internet that people take for granted, and most people would be shocked to know that something so major could be happening amongst such secrecy.
"The issues need to debated in the light of day and in detail, not rushed through without consultation by a shady coalition of oppressive regimes and vested corporate interests."
The TUC will be urging the UK government to oppose the ITU proposals for internet regulation at the Dubai meeting.
Union members in the UK are also being encouraged to join the global online campaign at www.tuc.org.uk/stopthenetgrab