Divisions over internet governance intensify in Dubai

Dubai skyline Regulators have been given a fortnight in Dubai to reach consensus over the regulations

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Rival visions over governance of the internet have emerged at a UN conference in Dubai.

Russia, the UAE and others are proposing that 193 countries have "equal rights to manage the internet" including its technical specifications.

They want this stated in an international communications treaty.

By contrast, the US wants to limit how the net features in the treaty's regulations.

It says that failure to do so could aid censorship, adding that its view is backed by many countries in Europe, Latin America and the Asia-Pacific.

Leaked document

Tensions between the views of the US and Russia were widely reported ahead of the start of the World Conference on International Telecommunications (Wcit) last Monday - but it was not known if Moscow's stance would be supported by others.

This changed after a document including a section dedicated to the internet was passed to the conference's organiser, the UN's International Telecommunication Union (ITU), on Friday.

It will be discussed by other attendees this week.

Although not formally made public, a draft was published over the weekend by Wcitleaks - a website dedicated to leaked documents relating to the conference.

The 22-page document says it was drawn up by Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Sudan.

Wcit key facts

Regulators and other delegates have until 14 December to agree which proposals to adopt.

More than 900 changes to the International Telecommunication Regulations have been put forward.

The ITU highlights proposals to block spam messages, cut mobile roaming fees and prioritise emergency calls as some of the event's key topics.

There have been accusations of "secrecy" because the ITU had left it to individual countries to publish proposals rather than release them itself.

Two sites - Wcitleaks and .nxt - have gathered together related documents from a variety of sources but many are still unpublished.

The resulting treaty will become part of international law, however the ITU itself recognises that there is no legal mechanism to force countries to comply.

Egypt's name was also attached, however on Sunday the country issued a statement saying it did not support the proposals.

Equal rights

Under a section titled "Internet" the document says that governance should be the shared responsibility of "governments, the private sector and civil society".

It adds that member states should have equal right to manage "internet numbering, naming, addressing and identification resources".

This would mark a shift from the current system in which the US Department of Commerce decides who runs the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (Iana) - the body responsible for regulating the net's address system.

The DoC recently renewed a contract for the independent, California-based organisation Icann to do so.

The US's control over Iana is a legacy of its funding for Arpanet - a precursor to the internet which helped form its technical core.

Terry Kramer sits on right hand side The US wants to minimise mention of the internet in the communications treaty

Some see this as an anachronism, but the US says it is defending a system in which a range of multi-stakeholder organisations with technical expertise can make "agile, rapid-fire decisions", regarding the development of the internet.

It suggests the internet's health would be threatened if development of its technical foundations were passed onto civil servants, the ITU or some other body.

Disputed definitions

The US is also engaged in a wider battle over whether the treaty's scope should extend beyond big telecom companies - such as BT, Telefonica and AT&T - to any relevant "operating agency".

Overseeing the internet

No one organisation is "in charge" of the internet, but the following groups help ensure it continues to function:

Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)

Charged with producing technical documents to influence the way people design, use and manage the net.

Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann)

Defines policies for how the domain name and IP (internet protocol) address number systems should run to ensure the net's system of unique identifiers remains stable and secure.

Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (Iana)

Assigns net address endings (generic top-level domain names), and coordinates the allocation of IP numbers. It currently functions as a department of Icann.

Internet Society (Isoc)

Lobbies governments to ensure the internet's technical standards are open and non-proprietary, so that anyone who uses an application on it in a certain way has the same experience. It also promotes freedom of expression.

Internet Architecture Board (IAB)

Oversees the process used to create internet standards and considers complaints about the way they are executed.

Internet Governance Forum (IGF)

An UN-created forum in which governments, businesses, universities and other organisations with a stake in the internet can share dialogue.

There has been speculation that use of this phrase could legitimise government interference into the operations of smaller internet service providers (ISPs) and cloud-based operations such as Google or Facebook.

"It creates an open door for review of content and potential censorship there, it will create a chilling environment for the internet," said Terry Kramer, the US's ambassador to Wcit, in a video uploaded by the ITU on Sunday.

Mr Kramer is pushing for the more specific term "recognised operating agencies" to be used instead. However, other countries are concerned this could restrict their ability to co-ordinate responses to problems such as spam and cyber attacks.

Deadline approaches

In the ITU's video Mr Kramer concludes that compromise might be impossible.

"Right now it feels like we are at an impasse because there are philosophical differences," he said.

The ITU itself has pledged not to put disputed issued to a majority vote, leaving it just four working days to try to find a common text all sides can agree on.

Failure to do so could see some of the treaty's regulations left unamended from the last time they were reviewed - a quarter of a century ago when the internet was not a concern.

The BBC has requested an interview with the Russian delegation but has been told it cannot grant interviews at this point.

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