x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Louder calls for wresting America's hand off control of the internet

The United States is to continue to administer the internet following the failure of countries to sign an international communications treaty at the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai.

The United States is to continue to administer the internet following the failure of countries including itself, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom to sign an international communications treaty at the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai.

However, some western internet industry experts are relieved to have avoided potential new restrictions on the use of the internet that might have reflected the standpoint of repressive regimes anxious to curb freedom of information.

Eighty-nine countries, including the UAE, signed the treaty, but 55 have reserved the right to do so later or have ruled out ratifying it.

The treaty would have helped nations to coordinate efforts against spam and widen access to the Web.

However, much of the discussion in Dubai this month centred on whether countries should have equal rights to the development of the internet's technical foundations. Non-ratification of the proposed treaty is seen as a setback for the United Nations's International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which hosted the talks and had said it could deliver a consensus.

However, no less a figure than Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, expressed a fear in Dubai that some delegates would opt for a UN agency to run the internet rather than leaving it to existing groups he believes are "doing a good job".

In the absence of a new international treaty, governance of the internet is left firmly in the hands of US-based organisations, with few other countries having a voice in how - what is increasingly - their main communications channel is operated and managed.

The Los Angeles-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann)administers control of Web addresses. Its brief also includes preserving the operational stability of the internet and ensuring market competition.

Jan Dawson, the chief telecoms analyst for the research company Ovum, says Icann "continues to be the body that makes many of the decisions about the fundamental functioning of the internet, and that is now not likely to change.

"That is a US-based body, and one of the criticisms from other countries has been that there isn't a more neutral international body."

But Mr Dawson, in common with Sir Tim, believes the internet's freedom could be compromised if all countries, even those with repressive regimes were given a louder say in the management and policing of the Web. There are also concerns about overregulation of the internet to an extent that might inhibit commercial enterprise.

"Such centralised control does mean that individual countries can't ban certain content or block parts of the internet easily through a centralised system … it is and remains a very decentralised set of assets," Mr Dawson says.

"That's one of the things that makes it both very resilient and very powerful, and that too should continue to be the case."

Fears of restrictive regulation of the internet have also been voiced by the internet pioneer Vint Cerf, the internet search giant Google's "chief internet evangelist".

An inter-governmental agency is the wrong place to make decisions about the future of the internet, he says. As only governments have a vote at the ITU, Mr Cerf says this includes governments that do not support a free and open internet and that "the engineers, companies, and people that build and use the Web have no vote".

Western IT corporations also tend to support US-centric control. Google, for example, is reported to have close ties to the US government in areas such as information sharing and intelligence gathering.

The reasons for US dominance of the internet are increasingly being seen as historic by regions outside the US and Europe. America was the first country to exploit the internet's commercial potential. That has, however, given the Web a very English-speaking and western focus.

There were rumblings at the Dubai conference that the rest of the world also wants to have a say. An African bloc of countries attending the conference, for example, demanded that a paragraph be added to the proposed treaty relating to human rights. This became one of the stumbling blocks to its ratification.

With regions such as China and the Middle East increasingly developing their own Web-based products and services, the internet is quickly becoming truly global in its development and culture.