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US struggles against opposition at UN Internet conference

US officials have reiterated that the World Congress on International Telecommunications, currently being held in Dubai, should not address Internet regulation issues.

"Fundamentally, the conference - to us - should not be dealing with the Internet sector," US Ambassador Terry Kramer said during a Thursday call with reporters. "That carries significant implications that could open the door to things like content censorship [or] payment models that we would be concerned would reduce traffic."

At issue is a meeting of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), an arm of the United Nations. The gathering has brought together over 1,950 delegates from around the world to work on revising a treaty known as the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs). They have been in effect since 1988 and offer guidelines related to international routing and charges between global carriers, as well as the overall Internet traffic between international network operators.

Those at the meeting will discuss new regulations for telecom companies, but Internet issues are also on the table, much to the chagrin of countries like the US. "Keeping to the pure focus of this conference, [which is] advancing broadband in a telecom arena, is the right approach," Kramer said.

The US is concerned, he said, that "seemingly harmless proposals [will] open the door to censorship." A country might issue a proposal in the name of Internet security, but what one country considers a security risk is likely very different from what another might think.

The Russians, for example, have proposed giving the ITU control over the Internet rather than multi-stakeholder companies like the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

"We fundamentally disagree with that," Kramer said today. Governments are not likely to make objective decisions about the Web, he said. The current structure allows for those with tech expertise to make "independent, agile decisions."

When asked if the US had discussed the proposal with the Russians, Kramer said that "we've looked at the proposal, but are not keen to get into a discussion about that proposal because we think it's out of scope for the conference."

On Monday, the US proposed a high-level working group that would resolve issues over the scope of the treaty. The US wants to limit the ITRs to those that provide telecom services to the public - like AT&T or Verizon over in the states, Kramer said - not private networks, data processing, and other activities. Kramer said the proposal has garnered support from Canada, as well as countries in Europe, Latin America, and Asia-Pacific.

When asked if he was disappointed that the US has yet to prevail on its proposal, Kramer said he is dealing with a "pretty large, fundamental issue" that will take time.

"It's not an easy issue to work through because it's a philosopical one," he said. "I know what our point of view is on this," which he has shared with the UN secretary generals. If anything, organisers really need "to go back to the original charter of the conference, [which is] 'how do we advance the telecom sector and broadband?'"

Otherwise, Kramer said, the Internet proposal is just a "significant scope creep."

In the states, several high-profile tech companies have objected to adding the Internet to the treaty, including Google and Mozilla.