U.S. government officials and companies are ramping up efforts to prevent this week’s international telecommunications treaty negotiations from giving authoritarian regimes more control over the Internet, even as the true extent of the threat remains disputed.
Starting this week, representatives from hundreds of countries are gathering at the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai, hosted by the United Nations International Telecommunication Union.
International telecommunications regulations, which are overseen by the ITU, mainly address older telecom technologies like telephone service. Some countries have expressed interest in expanding their scope to cover Internet issues because the Internet is playing a larger role in communications in general.
The U.S. delegation, backed by vocal Internet companies and consumer advocates, will make the case that the international system for regulating Internet traffic should remain decentralized, rather than in the hands of the U.N. or specific governments.
"The Internet is a decentralized network of networks and there is no one party—government or industry—that controls the Internet today. And that's a good thing," top U.S. telecommunications officials wrote on Friday in a blog post on the State Department website.
Companies like Google have taken the opportunity to rail against any increased government role in Internet governance.
"Some proposals could allow governments to justify the censorship of legitimate speech, or even cut off Internet access in their countries," Google's Vint Cerf wrote in a blog post. The Syrian regime was accused of doing just that during the recent political uprisings there, and denying access to Internet communications has been a weapon used by other repressive governments to stifle dissent.
Google has asked its users to sign an online petition opposing the ITU’s “closed-door meeting” that could “increase censorship and regulate the Web.”
The cause has bipartisan support in Congress, where lawmakers passed resolutions urging the U.S. to oppose any efforts to have the U.N. take a greater role in controlling the flow of Internet traffic. But the treaty process can't force the United States to do anything it doesn't want, and ITU officials deny any nefarious plot.
"Contrary to some of the sensationalist claims in the press, WCIT‑12 is definitively not about taking control of the Internet, especially in terms of the management of the Internet’s critical resources, such as names and addresses," ITU Secretary General Hamadoun Touré said last month. "Also WCIT‑12 is not in any way about restricting people’s freedom of expression or freedom of speech."
And even some company executives admit that the danger is likely to be less sensational than some kind of U.N. takeover of the Internet.
AT&T Vice President Jim Cicconi said that the most realistic danger is that authoritarian regimes will seek to use the negotiations to legitimize or provide a "legal underpinning" for their repressive Internet policies. "It would be a shame and embarrassment if the ITU provided that for them," he said.