Bitter struggle over Internet regulation to dominate global summit

Tue Nov 27, 2012 2:41pm EST
 

By Joseph Menn

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - 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 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.

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. Those governments would have greater leverage over Internet content and service providers if the changes were backed up by international agreement.   Continued...

 
People use computers at an Internet cafe in Changzhi, north China's Shanxi province June 20, 2007. REUTERS/Stringer