Fears Grow Over Efforts to Govern the Web

A deeply technical, two-week conference on new rules for connecting the world's communications networks hardly sounds like a setting for high-stakes international brinkmanship.

Six Ways to Get Free Wi-Fi When You Travel
Paul Eekhoff | Photographer's Choice RF | Getty Images

But according to the rhetoric it has stirred up from Silicon Valley to Brussels, the event that gets under way in Dubai on Monday will see nothing less than a fight over the future of the internet.

The meeting is the first called since 1988 to redraft the treaty that governs the International Telecommunications Union, which operates under the auspices of the UN. For many governments represented at the conference that has amounted to an open invitation to try to extend regulations developed for an earlier era of telecommunications to the internet age.

Prodded by Google and other US internet companies, Washington has warned that there is far more at stake than simple technical rules.

"There is the specter that some governments will seize on these proposals for all the wrong reasons because they want more control of the internet for anti-democratic ends," says William Kennard, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and now the US ambassador to the EU .

The cost of allowing deeper regulation of global internet traffic, according to internet executives such as Vint Cerf, who helped to shape the internet's basic technologies and now works at Google: creeping online censorship, higher costs for companies that use the internet and the loss of the highly flexible technical arrangements that have enabled the global network-of-networks to thrive.

That warning has been picked up in Europe, though in Dubai it will be the member states who argue the case rather than the EU. "There is a real battle about how to govern the internet," says Neelie Kroes, the EU's digital agenda commissioner. Her views echo Mr. Kennard's: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

The most direct challenge to the status quo has come from Russia, which has proposed changes to the way the internet is governed.

It is challenging the authority of existing bodies – principally ICANN, the internet addressing agency that is still subject to ultimate control by the US Department of Commerce, a link that antagonizes many governments around the world.

Most observers, however, rule out the chances of such proposals making headway. Dr Hamadoun Touré, secretary-general of the ITU, has repeatedly stressed the need for broad support for any positions taken in Dubai and said radical proposals that draw strong opposition are likely to fail.

"You cannot afford to have winners and losers," he said. "Freedom of the internet cannot be taken away."

The main battle lines will be drawn around more technical positions. Those may seem more innocuous, but critics say they still have the potential to deeply influence the way the internet operates.

Some of the most heated debates are likely to revolve around the economic arrangements that underpin the internet.

Under a proposal put forward by India and countries from the Middle East and Africa, internet companies such as Google and Facebook could be forced to pay a higher fee to telecoms networks in other countries that carry their traffic.

The so-called "sending party pays" arrangement echoes the way payment for voice calls has always been handled. Shifting some of the outsized profits from companies such as Google to the networks on which they depend would help to pay for much-needed upgrades to make the internet work better, according to supporters.

That has brought a strong reaction from the US, which champions a continuation of the loose commercial arrangements under which internet and telecoms companies are free to set their own terms of trade.

"Anything that sets up economic hurdles will slow traffic," said Terry Kramer, head of the US delegation to Dubai. Ultimately, he added, that will harm the developing nations that stand to be among the biggest beneficiaries of rapid internet adoptions.

Behind the proposed economic changes, meanwhile, some critics see a more sinister agenda: to deliberately hamper cross-border internet traffic in the interests of censorship.

China has long expended huge energy to censor the internet, and the role of social media and the internet in the events of the Arab uprising and elsewhere has sent shudders through plenty of authoritarian governments.

A range of other proposed rules, ostensibly designed to do everything from fight spam to ensure the "quality of service" of internet traffic, could be used by individual governments to either throttle back incoming communications or weed out specific content they want to block, critics warn.

For that reason the US and EU have pushed for a continuation of the loose arrangements that have applied to the internet, keeping the governments that stand behind the ITU out of the business of detailed regulations.

The ITU treaty "has worked because it is high-level and it should stay high-level", said Ms Kroes.