While the news out of the closed international conference in Dubai about the Internet has been spotty, there is word that a coalition led by Russia has withdrawn a proposal that would have given governments more powers to control the Web. The plan, presented as part of discussions about a new global treaty, had been opposed by Western countries.
The Russian plan had been backed by China, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates, while the U.S., Canada and Europe, among other countries, have opposed additional governmental controls. About 150 member countries of the International Telecommunications Union are represented at the conference, which has been taking place for slightly more than a week. The conference ends Friday.
Other Plans Circulating
The ITU treaty under discussion has not been revised since it went into effect in 1988, prior to the launch of the World Wide Web.
The proposal from the Russian bloc would have allowed countries greater control over online communications, and greater control over the allocation of Internet addresses, a task currently overseen by an independent group: ICANN, or the Internet Corp. for the Assignment of Names and Numbers. The Russian proposal also included provisions for "equal rights to manage the Internet" among all governments, including rights to control technical matters.
One Western diplomat told Reuters news service that there are other plans circulating that are similar to the one from the Russian coalition. The ITU usually works by consensus, but, this year, it may come down to voting.
The U.S. position is that the relatively free rein given the Internet should continue. However, the Western nations are in a minority if it comes to a vote, and they could end up refusing to sign the treaty or signing it and exercising their right to opt out of certain parts.
Free Net 'Under Threat'
A number of countries, such as China, already control and repress the Internet in their countries, so the practical effects of any treaty may not be substantial. However, critics of greater governmental control contend that a treaty that legalizes such conduct could justify that behavior, and could lead to even more repression.
Additionally, the technical control of the Net, and the assignment of addresses, has been conducted under independent organizations. A treaty that allowed authoritarian governments participation in international technical control could have a permanently damaging effect on the growth of online communications.
The Western countries are not united on all issues. A proposal from Europe, for instance, would charge content providers for marketing their content in countries other than their own, a kind of content toll fee. It is opposed by major U.S. Internet companies, including Google, Facebook and Amazon .
In an essay posted online last month, "father of the Internet" Vinton Cerf, currently a Google vice president, said that a "free and open Net is under threat" by the actions at the conference. Cerf has said that the ITU has a role to play, such as helping to provide order in developing markets for radio spectrum and telephone networks, but that the conference, where only governments get to vote, "is the wrong place to make decisions about the future of the Internet."