An unprecedented debate over how the global Internet is governed is set to dominate a meeting of officials in Dubai next week. The 12-day conference of the International Telecommunications Union, a 147-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. They say that a new regime is needed to deal with the surge in cybercrime and more recent military attacks.
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. 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, 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.
“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 fresh leak over the weekend showed that the ITU’s top managers viewed a badly split conference as a realistic prospect less than three months ago.
The leaked program for a “senior management retreat” for the ITU in early September included a summary discussion of the most probable outcomes from Dubai, concluding that the two likeliest scenarios involved major reworkings of the treaty that the United States would then refuse to sign. The only difference between the scenarios lay in how many other developed countries sided with the Americans.
An ITU spokesman said Tuesday that “the management team has never doubted that consensus will be found” and that the scenarios were meant to aid efforts at facilitating the process.
Touré said that because the disagreements are so vast, the conference probably will end up with something resembling the ITU’s earlier formula for trying to protect children online — an agreement to cooperate more and share laws and best practices, perhaps with hotlines to head off misunderstandings.
Even vague terms could be used as a pretext for more oppressive policies in various countries, though, and activists and industry leaders fear those countries might also band together by region to offer very different Internet experiences.
In some ways, the U.N. involvement reflects a reversal that has already begun. The United States has steadily diminished its official role in Internet governance, and many nations have stepped up their filtering and surveillance. More than 40 countries now filter the Net that their citizens see.
Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said this month that the Net is already on the road to Balkanization, with people in different countries getting very different experiences from the services provided by Google, Skype and others.
This month, a new law in Russia took effect that allows the federal government to order a Website offline without a court hearing. Iran recently rolled out a version of the Internet that replaced the real thing within its borders. A growing number of countries, including China and India, order sites to censor themselves for political, religious and other content.
China, which has the world’s largest number of Internet users, also blocks access to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter among other sites within its borders.
The loose governance of the Net currently depends on the non-profit ICANN, which oversees the Web’s address system, along with voluntary standard-setting bodies and a patchwork of national laws and regional agreements. Many countries see it as a U.S.-dominated system.
The U.S. isolation within the ITU is exacerbated by it being home to many of the biggest technology companies – and by the fact that it could have military reasons for wanting to preserve online anonymity. The Internet emerged as a critical military domain with the 2010 discovery of Stuxnet, a computer worm developed at least in part by the United States that attacked Iran’s nuclear program.
Whatever the outcome in Dubai, the conference stands a good chance of becoming a historic turning point for the Internet.
Unless our current Administration can smooth over the tension between the U.S. and all other countries, we will be seeing more and more of this trend away from U.S. Governance and control of the Internet.
Thanks to Joseph Menn and Reuters, and
Thanks for “listening”.