Governments squabble over how to run the Web

  • Article by: THE ECONOMIST
  • Updated: December 3, 2012 - 5:29 PM

Officials from more than 150 countries, plus do-gooders, geeks and other interested parties, are meeting in Dubai to argue about how to run the network -- and fight over who should control it.

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Participants listen to the speech of Hamdoun Toure, Secretary General of International Telecommunication Union, ITU, seen on screens, at the eleventh day of the World Conference on International Telecommunication in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Monday Dec. 3, 2012. The head of the U.N.'s telecommunication overseers sought Monday to quell worries about possible moves toward greater Internet controls during global talks in Dubai, but any attempts for increased Web regulations are likely to face stiff opposition from groups led by a major U.S. delegation.

Photo: Kamran Jebreili, Associated Press - Ap

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The rules of the Internet decide its speed, safety, accessibility, flexibility and unity. They, therefore, matter not just to computer enthusiasts, but to everyone with a stake in the modern world. Officials from more than 150 countries, plus do-gooders, geeks and other interested parties, are meeting in Dubai to argue about how to run the network -- and fight over who should control it.

Since the Internet's creation, a ragtag bunch of academics, engineers, companies and nonprofit outfits have been in charge. That delights innovators but has been a nightmare for the tidy-minded, and especially for authoritarian governments. They would like the Internet to be run like the world's telephone system, with tight standards and clearly set charges. The Dubai meeting brings the chance to write new rules, with a review of an elderly treaty: the International Telecommunication Regulations.

Defending the status quo

America, the European Union and other Western countries are trying to defend the chaotic status quo. Against them are Russia, China and many African and Arab states that claim that the Internet undermines national laws while enriching American firms. The meeting's host is the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a sluggish U.N. affiliate founded in 1865 to regulate telegrams, but which now deals with radio frequencies and satellite flight paths.

Some think it obsolete. Certainly its opaque and bureaucratic style dismays those steeped in the Internet's open culture. Larry Downes, a commentator who blogs for Forbes magazine, says the ITU's news releases read like "weird dispatches from Dickensian England." It published only a few draft documents for Dubai and couldn't even agree on whether the public would be allowed to attend any of the discussions.

Though the ITU's president, Hamadoun Touré, dismisses the notion of a takeover of the Internet as ridiculous, some governments, including Russia, would like the body to play a bigger role. In particular, they would like it to run the Internet's address system, in place of ICANN, an unusual charity registered in California and supervised from a distance by the U.S. Commerce Department. Critics think this setup gives American authorities unjustified powers, for example to boot undesirable websites off the Internet. Touré says such matters are outside the Dubai meeting's scope, but he has little power to stop delegates from raising them.

America wants to shield the Net from the treaty, but its diplomats fear that a broad coalition is taking shape against them. They hope to fend off most of the 450 proposed amendments. Many seem innocuous, or even worthwhile: for example, calling for international cooperation against fraud, child abuse or spam. But Terry Kramer, the head of America's 122-strong delegation, says some of these hide attempts to facilitate censorship of political speech. He decries any wording, however mealy-mouthed, that could increase governments' control over content.

Phone-call cash evaporates

A fiercer dispute is brewing about the rules for online businesses. Steep charges for international phone calls once helped funnel cash from rich countries to state-owned networks in developing ones. Much of that traffic is now on the Internet, hitting national operators' profits -- and governments' foreign-exchange reserves. An alliance of poor countries and network operators wants businesses that depend on broadband networks, such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft, to pay toward their construction and upkeep.

One proposal is that the most popular websites, such as YouTube or Facebook, should be billed for the data they send, as if they were making phone calls. At the moment, sites pay no more to serve data to customers in Dhaka than in Detroit.

Meanwhile a group of Europe's big telecoms firms is demanding that governments outlaw the introduction of "network neutrality" rules, which already are in force in countries such as the Netherlands and Chile. These rules require operators to grant equal priority to all Internet traffic, and prevent them from charging higher prices for "fast lanes" and other premium services.

Advocates of network neutrality worry that this is an attempt to erect tollbooths on the Internet. They say that network-neutrality rules are needed to ensure that the Internet provides a level playing field for innovative start-ups, and is not simply run in a way that maximizes profits for incumbent network operators. Geoff Huston, a network scientist, thinks former telephone monopolies exaggerate their importance to the Web. "They are dinosaurs fighting over the last water in the swamp," he said.

Fears of an anti-Western putsch in Dubai, handing control of the Internet to authoritarian governments, are overblown. Though in theory the ITU works by majority vote, in practice agreements almost always are reached by consensus. Moreover, the ITU has no power to foist rules on governments that refuse to bargain.

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