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Internet regulation in limbo as nations clash in Dubai

The UN summit responsible for reviewing the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) for the first time since 1988 is reaching its climax in Dubai. It doesn’t sound like the most interesting event on paper, but the communications sphere has seen some pretty major changes in the past 24 years which has turned this year’s World Congress on International Telecommunications (WCIT) on its head. For the first time ever, the world is discussing how we regulate the Internet.

Yet this very concept has proved problematic from the outset. The United States didn’t even want the issue negotiated, arguing that the net should continue growing and evolving free of bureaucracy and intervention from governments. Yet opponents would argue that the US has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, as, after all, the country stands as the default home of the Internet. The US Department of Commerce oversees most regulatory changes of the web via groups like ICAAN – the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers – helping domestic companies like Google boom in a suitable environment.

Indeed, the search giant itself has launched a ‘Take Action’ page warning about the dangers of Internet regulation and the damage the ITU (International Telecommunications Union; the UN agency leading the event) could cause, urging us to sign a petition “in support of the free and open Internet.” Concern over the UN and nation states asserting power over the net has been echoed by the web’s creator, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who fears major changes to regulation “would be a disruptive threat to the stability of the system”. In short, the overriding sentiment from the US and much of Europe entering the talks in Dubai has been ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’

But it was never going to be that simple. Russia and China predictably emerged as adversaries, and a leaked document during the summit’s early stages showed that the two Eastern powerhouses, with support from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Algeria, Sudan and Egypt, wanted to redefine the Internet as a system of state-supervised networks enabling increased government intervention. Those fighting the battle against censorship online would have been alarmed, if ultimately unsurprised.

The US and its allies seemed to have claimed a victory at the beginning of this week however, when it surfaced that the proposal had been dropped by its advocates, only for the pendulum to swing away once again last night, with news that a majority have voted in favour of the ITU assuming a more active role in Internet governance.

With so many countries at loggerheads and such a range of interests being pursued through the talks, ITProPortal was keen to gauge what the mood was like in Dubai and spoke to US participant Danielle Coffey, Vice President of Governmental Affairs within at the States’ Telecommunications Industry Association.

Despite the differing agendas playing off against each other, Coffey said the atmosphere was good during her time at the conference, and that at social events such as a party the US delegation hosted at the end of the first week, similarities between the attendees became more apparent than differences.

“I think that once people get talking in a less formal, rigid format, they have more in common than they think and that’s always a positive thing,” she said. “I think [other delegates] would agree that there really was a conversation that was positive and that brought us closer together, because I think we’re closer than we think. But then you get back to the formalities and things become a lot more black and white.”

Recent developments seem to indicate that affairs have indeed become black and white, with the divide between those for and against Internet regulation only strengthening. What’s more, Coffey confirmed the fears of many that the ITU itself is attempting to establish greater power through the talks. With the world’s superpowers flexing their muscles and fighting out a fraught war for cyber-power, the negotiations can scarcely afford a separate, supposedly neutral entity, pursuing its own goals and heightening tensions.

But Coffey said, “It’s absolutely clear that they [the ITU] definitely have strong opinions, and they’ve been sharing that and they’ve been incredibly vocal.” The US attendee was nevertheless full of praise for the agency’s secretary general Hamadoun Touré, for remaining “neutral” and doing “a good job” while overseeing the event.

As the talks approach their conclusion on Friday, Coffey clamied the US delegation had been “cautiously optimistic” of a satisfactory conclusion, but admitted the outcome was too hard to call. The priority for America at WCIT has been to protect the status quo regarding the Internet, with Coffey adding, “there’s been so much positive growth, innovation, and investment [due to the Internet], especially in developing countries, and we wouldn’t want to see that reversed with anything that could hamper this.”

If the opposing nations - who currently seem to be holding the upper-hand in Dubai - get their way, the Internet as we know it, and the politics surrounding it, may be about to change forever.