The advance of a proposal for greater government oversight of the internet at a UN conference marks a blow to US-led efforts to keep new regulations from touching the net.
Showdown at Dubai conference over greater government control of Web
A UN conference weighing possible internet rules shifted into high-stakes showdowns today after advancing a proposal for greater government oversight. The proposal was a blow to US-led efforts to keep new regulations from touching the net.
The move frames the ideological divide at the 193-nation gathering in Dubai, which is scheduled to wrap tomorrow with its first revisions of global telecom rules since 1988 – years before the dawn of the internet age.
A Western bloc led by a powerhouse US delegation seeks to block any UN rules on cyberspace, fearing they could squeeze Web commerce and open the door for more restrictions and monitoring by authoritarian regimes.
They appeared to win a critical preliminary battle early yesterday 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 Mohamed Nasser Al Ghanim said he based his decision on "the temperature of the room" following marathon negotiations.
That brought an immediate backlash from the US and its backers, which questioned the procedure and vowed to keep any new internet rules from the final treaty by the UN's International Telecommunications Union (ITU).
The group – formed in the 1860s when the telegraph ushered in instant communications – has no powers to instantly change how the internet operates. It also cannot compel reforms by states that already widely censor cyberspace.
But the US-led coalition at the talks argues that any UN codes sanctioning greater government roles in the net – even under the framework of state security – could be used as justification for even more controls from Web watchers in places such China, Iran and other nations.
The host United Arab Emirates announced new internet laws last month that outlaw postings containing indecent material or gambling, that violate the privacy of others, or damage the reputation of the country and its rulers.
Nations favouring a heavier government hand are likely emboldened by getting their resolution adopted. However, it still needs to clear at least two more hurdles before it can be considered for the final document and will face strong opposition from the US and others.
"It's not a crime to talk about internet inside the ITU," said Hamadoun Toure, the group's secretary-general, suggesting high-level support to keep debate going on internet issues.
In response, the head of the US delegation, ambassador Terry Kramer, said: "We do not believe the focus of this conference should be on the internet and we did not come to this conference in anticipation of a discussion on the internet."
A statement from the Internet Society, an international group promoting openness in cyberspace, called the advancement of the proposal "clearly a disappointing development."
The US team in Dubai also includes heavy hitters from the technology world such as Microsoft and Google, which also have stood up against proposals by European telecoms companies to charge internet content providers for access to domestic markets around the world.
Other issues on the table include calls for more transparency on roaming charges by mobile phone companies, efforts to fight internet fraud and spam and creation of a worldwide emergency number for mobile phones and other devices.