U.S. vs. China, Russia in Battle for Control Over the Internet

Photograph by David Lowe

The U.S. government has vowed to fight efforts by Russia and China to empower the U.N. to regulate the Internet.

This could be a crucial week for the future of the Internet and who controls it.

At a conference in Dubai that ends on Friday, the United Nations could emerge with significant authority over key parts of the Internet. And as a result, China, Russia and Saudi Arabia could break apart the U.S.-led system for numbering and naming websites.

In other words, there could be a fundamental change in the way the Internet is governed, and some countries might win the power to control or tamper with the Internet in previously impossible ways.

Or: Little will change at all, which is more likely.

For all the posturing surrounding the Worldwide Conference on International Telecommunications, there’s the distinct possibility that the Internet will emerge unscathed.

Whatever the outcome, the battle taking place in Dubai highlights the growing tension over a relatively obscure but vital system for making sure that people can surf the Web freely without government interference.

The conference is a product of the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency.  The gathering’s stated aim was to update the technical standards that allow different countries’ telephone networks to work together.  The last time they were updated was 1988.

The agency insists it won’t use the conference to increase the UN’s authority over the Internet. Nevertheless, the event has turned into a referendum on the role of the United States, and in particular, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, in managing the global Internet.

ICANN is an independent, U.S.-based organization that acts as a phone book for the Internet. It coordinates the names and addresses of sites globally to ensure that computers know to find each other online.

The group’s prominence is an outgrowth of the Internet’s roots in the U.S. and the need for a centralized body to oversee traffic instructions. Its primary function is managing the Domain Name System, or DNS, that underpins the modern web.

The ideas being floated would shift some control to the UN and allow individual nations to manage the Internet addresses in their own territories. On Wednesday, an eight-country group that is pushing for more sovereign control over web addresses resubmitted a proposal it had scrapped a day earlier, as my colleague Amy Thomson reported. The group includes China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates.

While it might seem like an equitable idea, the Obama administration published a blog post Tuesday that argued that free speech and innovation would suffer if the UN were granted significant new powers. The proposal also faces opposition from Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany and Sweden, which have all called for it to be tabled since they’ve agreed not to talk about regulating the Internet at the conference.

The threat is that if every country were allowed to manage their own Internet address books, sites seen as troublesome by the governments could be easily — and silently — eliminated by removing them from the index and making them permanently inaccessible to the outside world.

“The global consensus for a free and open Internet is overwhelming,” the White House’s post stated. “Millions in the United States and around the world have already added their voices to this conversation, and their position is clear: they do not want the WCIT to govern the Internet or legitimize more state control over online content.  Our administration could not agree more – and will not support a treaty that sets that kind of precedent.”

That the Internet can be controlled at all may come as a surprise to some. After all, we often hear it described as the Wild Wild West of computing, where anyone can have a voice, viruses are unstoppable, and as the old New Yorker cartoon famously depicted, nobody knows who — or what — y0u are online, unless you tell them. And that countries don’t fully control their own corners of cyberspace is also little-known.

Yet there are ways that the Internet can be brought to heel. We got a fresh example two weeks ago when the Internet was shut off in Syria. Also, China’s censorship of what its citizens see online is longstanding and pervasive. Governments already have powerful tools at their disposal — namely, regulatory authority over telecommunications companies — that give them a lever for crippling the Internet when so desired.

The infrastructure for managing Web addresses has been a sore spot for some countries for some time. The origins of the latest power grab were outlined in depth in this Vanity Fair piece from May, which described it as a “war under way for control of the Internet.”

The deliberations are fast-moving, and there’s a lot of uncertainty about what comes next. By Friday, we should know a lot more.

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