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  • Aug 29, 2014
  • Updated: 7:33am
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UN agency could gain control over the web

Russia, China want web under control of UN agency, while US says this may restrict freedom

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2012, 4:05am

It is expected to be the mother of all cyber diplomatic battles.

When delegates gather in Dubai in December for an obscure UN agency meeting, fighting is expected to be intense over proposals to rewrite global telecom rules to effectively give the United Nations control over the internet.

Russia, China and other countries back a move to place the internet under the authority of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a UN agency that sets technical standards for global phone calls.

US officials say placing the web under UN control would undermine the freewheeling nature of cyberspace, which promotes open commerce and free expression, and could give a green light for some countries to crack down on dissidents.

Observers say a number of authoritarian states will back the move, and that the major Western nations will oppose it, meaning the developing world could make a difference.

"The most likely outcome is a tie, and if that happens there won't be any dramatic changes, although that could change if the developing countries make a big push," said James Lewis, director of the Technology and Public Policy Programme at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

"But there is a lot of discontent with how the internet is governed and the US will have to deal with that at some point."

Lewis said there was still an overwhelming perception that the US owns and manages the internet. Opponents have a "powerful argument" to create a global authority to manage the internet, Lewis said, but "we need to find some way to accommodate national laws in a way that doesn't sacrifice human rights".

Terry Kramer, the special US envoy for the talks, has expressed Washington's position opposing proposals by Russia, China and others to expand the ITU's authority to regulate the net.

"The internet has grown [as] it has not been micromanaged or owned by any government or multinational organisation," Kramer told a recent forum.

"There is no internet central office. Its openness and decentralisation are its strengths."

The head of the ITU, Hamadoun Toure, said his agency has "the depth of experience that comes from being the world's longest established intergovernmental organisation".

Toure wrote in the British newspaper The Guardian that any change in regulation should "express the common will of ITU's major stakeholders" and "find win-win solutions that will act as a positive catalyst".

But Harold Feld of the US-based non-government group Public Knowledge said any new rules could have devastating consequences. "These proposals, from the Russian Federation and several Arab states, would for the first time explicitly embrace the concept that governments have a right to control online communications and disrupt internet access," Feld said.

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