Russia, U.S. Tussle Over Internet Control at U.N. Conference

By Patrick Goodenough | December 10, 2012 | 4:42 AM EST

Delegates at the World Conference of International Telecommunications in Dubai. (Photo: International Telecommunication Union)

( – As a conference on international communications enters its final week Monday, the issue of whether the current system of Internet governance needs revamping remains unresolved, as blocs led by the United States and Russia dig in to mutually incompatible positions.

The development comes at a time of increased tensions between Moscow and Washington, with a Kremlin aide warning Sunday of possible retaliatory moves after the U.S. Senate passed legislation that lifts trade restrictions with Russia but introduces sanctions on Russian officials accused of human rights abuses.

Critics have been warning for months that authoritarian-minded countries would try to use the World Conference of International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai to fundamentally change the way the Internet is governed.

Although the U.S. maintains that Internet governance should not even be on the agenda, halfway through the conference the gulf appears wide.

The WCIT is reviewing a longstanding binding global telecommunications treaty overseen by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a Geneva-based U.N. specialized agency.

A group of nations led by Russia is pushing, as they have done at previous ITU gatherings, for an Internet regulatory role.

Pushing back are countries including the U.S., Canada and European democracies, which want the treaty to deal with traditional telecoms as well as expanding new networks such as high-speed broadband, but to steer clear of the Internet itself – content, regulation, assignment of Internet protocol addresses etc.

The current, so-called “multi-stakeholder model,” has at its center the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a California-based not-for-profit corporation contracted to the U.S. Department of Commerce, which assigns protocol addresses and oversees Web domains. The U.S. and others argue that the model has been highly successful and don’t want to see it replaced by an intrusive, regulatory approach that they say would stifle growth.

A proposal by the U.S. and Canada called for an agreement at the outset of the conference on a definition of “telecommunications,” and an agreement on what type of bodies would be bound by the future regulations.

U.S. delegation head Terry Kramer explained during a teleconference briefing Thursday that the U.S. and Canada want the regulations to apply solely to “recognized operating agencies” – those that actually provide telecommunications services to the public, like Verizon in the U.S.

Russia, backed by a group of others including China, wants to break what it sees as unacceptable U.S. control, by broadening the scope of the treaty to include private and government networks.

“Member States shall have equal rights to manage the Internet, including in regard to the allotment, assignment and reclamation of Internet numbering, naming, addressing and identification resources and to support for the operation and development of basic Internet infrastructure,” reads a Russian proposal.

“Member States shall have the sovereign right to establish and implement public policy, including international policy, on matters of Internet governance, and to regulate the national Internet segment, as well as the activities within their territory of operating agencies providing Internet access or carrying Internet traffic.”

Kramer warned of the potential threat to the free movement of information as governments try to control content.

He said the U.S. fundamentally disagreed with the Russian proposal to move Internet governance away from multi-stakeholder organizations such as ICANN to government or single organizations.

“Once governments are in that role, they’re in a position to make judgments about how the Internet is going to operate, what type of information’s going to flow there, etc.,” he said.

The Russian proposal also cites the need for security. Kramer drew a distinction between the necessary security of telecomm networks and “Internet security,” which gets into the area of content and which, he said, the U.S. does not believe should be part of the treaty.

“What can happen is what are seemingly harmless proposals can open the door to censorship, because people can then say, listen, as part of Internet security, we see traffic and content that we don’t like.

“And people are making judgments, governments are making judgments about that content that, again, can be suppressing people’s freedoms and rights to express themselves, to share points of view, to access information, etc.”

In an update on the proceedings from Dubai the Internet Society, an independent non-profit group, said that as of Sunday, the critical issue or whether the revised treaty should be extended to include the Internet remained unresolved. It predicted a busy day on Monday.

The final week of the WCIT will see ad-hoc groups continue to negotiate, committees review proposed text revisions, plenary discussions including the presentation of “reservations” by countries that have them, and then presentation on Friday of the final revised treaty for signing.

“Once the revised treaty is signed by a sufficient number of countries, it becomes a working treaty, although each country then must approve it through ratification or another domestic legislative process,” according to a primer by the State Department’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs.

The last big push led by non-Western governments to challenge what they see as U.S. “control” of the Internet took place during the ITU-organized World Summit on the Information Society, held in Tunisia in 2005.

Press freedom groups noted at the time that some of the governments spearheading the drive, China’s in particular, were themselves notorious for efforts to censor and restrict the Internet.

Blacklist retaliation threat

Meanwhile in Moscow an aide to President Vladimir Putin, Yury Ushakov, warned Sunday that Russia may take retaliatory measures after the U.S. Senate Thursday repealed Cold War-era restrictions on trade with Russia – a longstanding Russian demand – but simultaneously passed legislation targeting human rights violators.

Named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian whistleblower who died in custody in 2009, the legislation establishes a public blacklist of rights violators who would be denied U.S. visas and have any U.S.-based assets frozen.

“The Magnitsky Act is an extremely unfriendly move,” the RIA Novosti news agency quoted Ushakov as saying. “The most unpleasant thing is that we are forced to take retaliatory measures and we’ll certainly respond to this.”

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said earlier Russia would respond to the U.S. legislation by barring entry to Americans accusing of violating human rights.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow