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US May Not Have the Muscle to Stop Internet Rule-Making

US May Not Have the Muscle to Stop Internet Rule-Making

There's a week and a half to go before we'll know the final score in the UN debate over Internet freedom, but so far it looks like 1-0, with Russia-China and the Middle East apparently prevailing against the U.S., Canada and much of Europe. The Western nations want to limit the scope of the meeting to telecommunications, leaving the Internet out of it, but their proposal seems to be going nowhere fast.

By Peter Suciu
12/05/12 12:51 PM PT

The United States and Canada faced a setback on Wednesday as a joint proposal from the two nations, which was also backed by some European countries, failed to win approval at an international meeting. The proposal aimed to protect the Internet from international regulation, and its rejection could mean tough negotiations will follow in the rewriting of the telecoms treaty.

Currently about 2,000 delegates from 193 countries are in the United Arab Emirates city of Dubai for the World Conference on International Telecommunications. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a United Nations agency, is charged with defining rules that pertain to the regulation of the Internet -- rules that were last addressed in 1988. The 12-day conference runs through the end of next week.

It appeared this week that a line had been drawn in the sand as a group of nations, including the United States, Canada and some European countries, joined with several technology companies, including Google and Facebook, in arguing for the Internet to remain free and open. Nations including Russia and China, as well as many in the Middle East, are looking to have tighter control.

Limiting the Rule-Making

A key point in the U.S.-Canada proposal would have limited the ITU's rule-making to telecom operators and not apply any new provisions to Internet-based companies such as Google or Facebook.

"Limiting the discussions to the telecom industry is the only hope of accomplishing anything at the ITU meeting," said Josh Crandall, principal analyst at Netpop Research. "The Internet is a much different animal that involves what is being said as well as how communications are being linked. The Internet will require a new forum for discussion as parties involved are bringing many different ideologies to the table."

At present, the Internet has no central regulatory body, but various groups provide some oversight. The U.S.-based nonprofit ICANN coordinates domain names and numeric Internet protocol (IP) addresses.

East vs. West

The battle lines almost look drawn from the political landscape of another era, as western nations led by the United States and Canada look to maintain freedom on the Internet. However, many of the recent high-profile cyberattacks on Middle Eastern targets, including Iran, are widely believed to have originated from the United States.

At stake could be freedom of communication, with the potential for greater censorship in countries that seek greater control of the Internet.

"The whole idea behind this proposal makes absolutely no sense to the leading countries of the world," said telecommunications analyst Jeff Kagan. "Unfortunately, there are many other non-leading countries, and they all have a vote too. It seems that this is the natural course for any UN debate."

The diametrically opposed opinions on the matter may make a compromise of any kind difficult.

"The drivers are very different depending on the country," Kagan told TechNewsWorld. "It is impossible for the UN to have a satisfactory result for all. Apparently very little about this argument has to do with Internet freedom and revenue," he added. "Rather it seems to be about repression of freedom of speech and ultimate control. That's chilling."

This could put the U.S. on a very slippery slope with respect to the ITU.

"The United States has taken a careful and slow approach to changing the Internet with regard to taxes and the like," Kagan emphasized. "I would sure hate to see the UN totally screw up the amazing growth curve that the Internet has been riding since the early 1990s, but that could indeed happen. We'll have to keep a close eye on this meeting."


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