Just when you thought you had enough to worry about (fiscal cliff, global warming, Syria), along comes WCIT, pronounced "wicket."

What WCIT stands for is the World Conference on International Telecommunications. What it is, is a chance for various international cabals to kill the open and free Internet.

Look, I thought it was crazy, too, when I first heard about the idea of handing over regulation of the Internet to an obscure U.N. agency.

I mean, come on. Are black helicopters going to be buzzing our backyards to see what we're liking on Facebook? Do we need to line our bedroom windows with tinfoil to keep our bank accounts from being drained? Is some nasty regime going to shut down the Internet, as if we're living in some postapocalyptic PG-13 movie?

Well, maybe.

Among the countries mixing it up at the WCIT starting next week are China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria, countries not exactly known for their love of the freewheeling, loosey-goosey, express-yourself nature of the Web. No worries there, right?

These and other countries have presented ideas to the International Telecommunications Union, the U.N. agency, that could do heavy-duty damage to the Net. Don't take it from me. Take it from the guy who invented the thing. OK, one of those who invented the thing.


Advertisement

"I would say this is a highly pernicious situation where proposals are being made that would justify actions that are clearly against the exercise of human rights," says Internet pioneer Vint Cerf, who as Google's (GOOG) chief Internet evangelist is the company's public face in its campaign to stop the madness. "It would be a terrible precedent to imbue the ITU with this kind of scope, and that's why it's so dangerous."

Cerf will be watching closely starting Monday when representatives of 193 countries meet in Dubai for two weeks of talks about expanding a long-standing treaty. The issue is whether to agree to allow the ITU, the agency that looks after international telephone and radio standards, to also become a key steward of the communal Internet.

Here's what people who love the Internet hate about all this: The change would give the keys to the biggest innovation in most of our lifetimes over to slow-footed government bureaucrats.

Even worse, a number of countries are pushing proposals that would provide less privacy concerning who is saying what on the Internet, while providing more control over what governments allow people to share on the Web. (Yes, repressive regimes already throttle the Web at will, but should the rest of the world give such behavior a thumbs-up with a treaty that allows it?)

Still other countries want to charge content providers (think Google, Netflix (NFLX), presumably the blogger next door) when their citizens click on the content they've provided. Great idea, right? Make Google pay to help some poor farmer in Kenya find a link to the latest crop report? You think that's going to encourage Google -- or other U.S.-based companies -- to serve the developing world?

So, how worried should you be?

A group of WCIT experts who gathered at Stanford this week were hardly alarmist, despite their panel discussion's title: "Sticky WCIT: Is This the End of the Internet?" But there is a certain roll-of-the-dice aspect to the Dubai conference, given that each of the 193 countries negotiating the treaty has one vote. That's a lot of cats to herd.

Let's hope the good guys figure out how to do it.

The truth is that the fine points of treaty-making are mind-numbing. But the whole discussion got me thinking about the Internet and what a wonderful thing it is. Twenty years ago, it didn't exist for most of us. Now it's like turning on the water in the kitchen sink. We simply expect it to be there.

Today we carry the Internet around with us (Thank you iPhone). We can use it to buy the latest Mumford & Sons single, or see and talk to far-flung loved ones, or help topple evil regimes. The speed with which the Web has become interwoven into our lives and the lives of billions of people around the world is staggering.

It's an incredibly powerful force, and those fighting for the Internet hope the people of the world will use it -- and whatever else they can -- to let politicians and the WCIT delegates know that they don't want their Internet messed with.

Otherwise, we might one day look back to December in Dubai as we wonder where our Internet went.

Contact Mike Cassidy at mcassidy@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.



World Conference on International telecommunications background

For a look at leaked documents containing treaty proposals see www.wcitleaks.org
To see Google's public campaign to object to International Telecommunications Union involvement go to www.google.com/intl/en/takeaction.