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Bitter debate & struggle over Internet regulation

Frustrated man

"These persistent attempts are just evidence that this breed of dinosaurs, with their pea-sized brains, hasn't figured out that they are dead yet, because the signal hasn't traveled up their long necks," Cerf told Reuters.

November 27, 2012 9:02 by

“The decisions are going to be by consensus,” said U.S. delegation chief Terry Kramer. He said anti-anonymity measures such as mandatory Internet address tracing won’t be adopted because of opposition by the United States and others.

“We’re a strong voice, given a lot of the heritage,” Kramer said, referring to the U.S. invention and rapid development of the Internet. “A lot of European markets are very similar, and a lot of Asian counties are supportive, except China.”

Despite the reassuring words, a fresh leak over the weekend showed that the ITU’s top managers viewed a badly split conference as a realistic prospect less than three months ago.

The leaked program for a “senior management retreat” for the ITU in early September included a summary discussion of the most probable outcomes from Dubai, concluding that the two likeliest scenarios involved major reworkings of the treaty that the United States would then refuse to sign. The only difference between the scenarios lay in how many other developed countries sided with the Americans.

ITU officials didn’t dispute the authenticity of the document, which was published by Jerry Brito, a researcher at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University as part of a continuing series of ITU-related leaks.

Touré said that because the disagreements are so vast, the conference probably will end up with something resembling the ITU’s earlier formula for trying to protect children online – an agreement to cooperate more and share laws and best practices, perhaps with hotlines to head off misunderstandings.

“From Dubai, what I personally expect is to see some kind of principles saying cyberspace is a global phenomenon and it can only have global responses,” Touré said. “I just intend to put down some key principles there that will lay the seeds for something in the future.”

Even vague terms could be used as a pretext for more oppressive policies in various countries, though, and activists and industry leaders fear those countries might also band together by region to offer very differentInternet experiences.

In some ways, the U.N. involvement reflects a reversal that has already begun.

The United States has steadily diminished its official role in Internet governance, and many nations have stepped up their filtering and surveillance. More than 40 countries now filter the Net that their citizens see, said Ronald Deibert, a University of Toronto political science professor and authority on international conflicts in cyberspace.

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said this month that the Net is already on the road to Balkanization, with people in different countries getting very different experiences from the services provided by Google, Skype and others.

This month, a new law in Russia took effect that allows the federal government to order a Website offline without a court hearing. Iran recently rolled out a version of the Internet that replaced the real thing within its borders. A growing number of countries, including China and India, order sites to censor themselves for political, religious and other content.

China, which has the world’s largest number of Internet users, also blocks access to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter among other sites within its borders.

The loose governance of the Net currently depends on the non-profit ICANN, which oversees the Web’s address system, along with voluntary standard-setting bodies and a patchwork of national laws and regional agreements. Many countries see it as a U.S.-dominated system.

The U.S. isolation within the ITU is exacerbated by it being home to many of the biggest technology companies – and by the fact that it could have military reasons for wanting to preserve online anonymity. The Internet emerged as a critical military domain with the 2010 discovery of Stuxnet, a computer worm developed at least in part by theUnited States that attacked Iran’s nuclear program.

Whatever the outcome in Dubai, the conference stands a good chance of becoming a historic turning point for theInternet.

“I see this as a constitutional moment for global cyberspace, where we can stand back and say, `Who should be in charge?’ said Deibert. “What are the rules of the road?”

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