An unprecedented debate over how the global Internet is governed is set to dominate a meeting of officials in Dubai next week, with many countries pushing to give a United Nations body broad regulatory powers even as the United States and others contend such a move could mean the end of the open Internet.
The 12-day conference of the International Telecommunications Union, a 157-year-old organization that's now an arm of the United Nations, largely pits revenue-seeking developing countries and authoritarian regimes that want more control over Internet content against U.S. policymakers and private Net companies that prefer the status quo.
Many of the proposals have drawn fury from free-speech and human-rights advocates and have prompted resolutions from the U.S. Congress and the European Parliament, calling for the current decentralized system of governance to remain in place.
While specifics of some of the most contentious proposals remain secret, leaked drafts show that Russia is seeking rules giving individual countries broad permission to shape the content and structure of the Internet within their borders, while a group of Arab countries is advocating universal identification of Internet users. Some developing countries and telecom providers, meanwhile, want to make content providers pay for Internet transmission.
Fundamentally, most of the 193 countries in the ITU seem eager to enshrine the idea that the U.N. agency, rather than today's hodgepodge of private companies and nonprofit groups, should govern the Internet. The ITU meeting, which aims to update a longstanding treaty on how telecom companies interact across borders, will also tackle other topics such as extending wireless coverage into rural areas.
If a majority of the ITU countries approve U.N. dominion over the Internet along with onerous rules, a backlash could lead to battles in Western countries over whether to ratify the treaty, with tech companies rallying ordinary Internet users against it and some telecom carriers supporting it.
In fact, dozens of countries including China, Russia and some Arab states, already restrict Internet access within their own borders, but those governments would have greater leverage over Internet content and service providers if the changes were backed up by international agreement.
Amid the escalating rhetoric, search king Google last week asked users to “pledge your support for the free and open Internet” on social media, raising the specter of a grassroots outpouring of the sort that blocked American copyright legislation and a global anti-piracy treaty earlier this year.
Google's Vint Cerf, the ordinarily diplomatic co-author of the basic protocol for Internet data, denounced the proposed new rules as hopeless efforts by some governments and state-controlled telecom authorities to assert their power.
“These persistent attempts are just evidence that this breed of dinosaurs, with their pea-sized brains, hasn't figured out that they are dead yet, because the signal hasn't traveled up their long necks,” Cerf told Reuters.
The ITU's top official, Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré, sought to downplay the concerns in a separate interview, stressing to Reuters that even though updates to the treaty could be approved by a simple majority, in practice nothing will be adopted without near-unanimity.
“Voting means winners and losers. We can't afford that in the ITU,” said Touré, a former satellite engineer from Mali who was educated in Russia.
Touré predicted that only “light-touch” regulation on cyber-security will emerge by “consensus,” using a deliberately vague term that implies something between a majority and unanimity.
He rejected criticism that the ITU's historic role in coordinating phone carriers leaves it unfit to corral the unruly Internet, comparing the Web to a transportation system.
“Because you own the roads, you don't own the cars and especially not the goods they are transporting. But when you buy a car you don't buy the road,” Touré said. “You need to know the number of cars and their size and weight so you can build the bridges and set the right number of lanes. You need light-touch regulation to set down a few traffic lights.”
Because the proposals from Russia, China and others are more extreme, Touré has been able to cast mild regulation as a compromise accommodating nearly everyone.
Two leaked Russian proposals say nations should have the sovereign right “to regulate the national Internet segment.” An August draft proposal from a group of 17 Arab countries called for transmission recipients to receive “identity information” about the senders, potentially endangering the anonymity of political dissidents, among others.
A U.S. State Department envoy to the gathering and Cerf agreed with Touré that there is unlikely to be any drastic change emerging from Dubai.
“The decisions are going to be by consensus,” said U.S. delegation chief Terry Kramer. He said anti-anonymity measures such as mandatory Internet address tracing won't be adopted because of opposition by the United States and others.