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Berners-Lee warns against changes to Net at UN conclave

World Wide Web's inventor becomes the latest technology notable to raise red flag over proposals being voted on this week at Dubai conference.

If you ask the folks who had a hand in the creation of the Internet, odds are you'll get a very different read on a regulation idea likely to turn into a lightning rod for controversy at a highly anticipated meeting of the UN's International Telecommunications Union.

Tim Berners-Lee Martin LaMonica/CNET

The conference was called to rewrite a 1988 treaty that governs international communications traffic, called the International Telecommunications Regulations (PDF).

But in the run-up to the conclave, which takes place this week in in Dubai, several technology companies and Internet free-speech advocates, as well as the European Parliament and the United States, have warned that some of the proposals being bruited about would imperil Internet freedom if enacted and result in intrusive and potentially heavy-handed national regulations. In particular, a change in the regulations championed by the Russian delegation has raised fears that this would transfer power away from independent bodies now responsible for Internet standards to the ITU. It reads:

"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."
After CNET reported the existence of the draft proposal, the Russians modified the language to erase some of the anti-Internet rhetoric of the original. However, critics maintain that the wording still would let the UN help member states seize control of key Internet engineering assets, such as domain names, addresses, and numbering.

Earlier this week Vint Cerf, who helped design the Internet's architecture and key Web protocols and now works as an Internet evangelist at Google, warned that the openness of the network was being put in jeopardy. The latest to sound a warning: Sir Tim Berners-Lee, widely credited as the inventor of the World Wide Web for his pioneering work at CERN in 1989.

"I think it's important that these existing structures continue to be used without any attempt to bypass them," he said in an interview with the BBC. "These organizations have been around for a number of years and I think it would be a disruptive threat to the stability of the system for people to try to set up alternative organizations to do the standards."

He added:

"A lot of concerns I've heard from people have been that, in fact, countries that want to be able to block the Internet and give people within their country a 'secure' view of what's out there would use a treaty at the ITU as a mechanism to do that, and force other countries to fall into line with the blockages that they wanted to put in place."