The Dubai Internet showdown

The Dubai Internet showdown

In Dubai, the World Conference on International Telecommunications is hurtling toward its scheduled conclusion tomorrow. The conference has attracted worldwide media coverage (and a few hackers), mostly because of the potential for a showdown over control of the Internet. Tech giants, including Microsoft and Google, have pushed hard against proposals by some states that the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU) move into internet governance. Here’s a roundup of recent reporting and reaction:

The Economist‘s Babbage column describes the battle-lines:

The main issue is still unresolved: to what extent the internet will feature in the new treaty (or in a separate, non-binding resolution). China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries want to give governments "equal rights to manage the internet", according to a draft proposal published earlier this week. Fearing that this would lead to more censorship online and allow governments to meddle with the internet’s very infrastructure, America—backed by many countries in Europe, Latin America and the Asia-Pacific region—is pushing hard to limit the new treaty to old-style telecoms.

Russia Today sees the internet governance issue as one of U.S. dominance:

Several countries including Russia, China and Saudi Arabia are reportedly seeking to reduce US dominance over the Internet. If successful the move will empower governments to silently eliminate troublesome websites.

The New York Times editorial board lauds the United States and Western Europe for fighting the good fight:

[A] group of countries led by Russia and China are trying to use the deliberations, the first in 24 years and taking place under United Nations auspices, to undermine the open spirit of the Internet. The United States, the European Union and other countries have rightly resisted any such effort, which is also supported by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Algeria, Iraq and Bahrain. 

Whether they’ve prevailed is still unclear. Yesterday, proponents of greater UN control scored an apparent victory. Via the Associated Press:

A rival group — including China, Russia, Gulf Arab states and others — favors U.N. backing for a stronger sway by governments over all levels of Internet affairs.

They appeared to win a critical preliminary battle early Thursday when the meeting’s chairman declared consensus on a proposal for a more "active" government role in Internet dealings. There was no formal vote, but Mohammed Nasser al-Ghanim said he based his decision on "the temperature of the room" following marathon negotiations.

That brought an immediate backlash from the U.S. and its backers, which questioned the procedure and vowed to keep any new Internet rules from the final treaty by the U.N.’s International Telecommunications Union, or ITU.

The Washington Post reports that the Obama administration won’t sign anything unless there are major changes:

The Obama administration is refusing to sign a U.N. treaty under consideration at a major global telecommunications conference because of provisions that it says would give a U.N. stamp of approval to state censorship and regulation of the Internet and private networks.

“We can’t conceive of a signing the text without a major revision at this point,” a senior administration official said Thursday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

In this CNET analysis, a former International Telecommunications Union official argues that the ITU and its leadership may have jeopardized their standing by cozying up to authoritarian governments:

Rutkowski told CNET that some are pushing harder for change. "It appears that Russia, the Arab and African blocs, plus a bunch of other allies have definitely indicated they do," he said. "It’s unclear how successful they will be in using ITU instruments and bodies to do this […] There is a substantial likelihood that the ITU will just be further shunned by everyone."