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The U.N. and the Internet: What to expect, what to fear (FAQ)

The U.S., Canada, and European allies are squaring off against Russia and China at a U.N. Internet summit. At stake: the future of how the Internet will be run.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
11 min read
Scenes from this week's U.N. summit in Dubai organized by the International Telecommunication Union
Scenes from this week's U.N. summit in Dubai organized by the International Telecommunication Union ITU

The inner workings of United Nations telecommunications agencies aren't usually headline news. But then again, most U.N. confabs don't grapple with topics as slippery as Internet censorship, taxation, and privacy.

A U.N. agency called the International Telecommunication Union has kicked off what has become a highly controversial summit this week in Dubai, capping over a year of closed-door negotiations over an international communications treaty that could have a direct impact on the Internet. The summit continues through the end of next week.

It's true, of course, that U.N. meetings often yield more rhetoric than substance. During a summit in Tunisia in 2005, for instance, Iran and African governments proclaimed that the Internet permits too much free speech, with Cuba's delegate announcing that Fidel Castro believed the time had come to create a new organization "which administers this network of networks."

The difference here is that this meeting actually matters: the ITU event is aimed at rewriting a multilateral treaty that governs international communications traffic. It was last updated back in 1988, when home computers used dial-up modems, the Internet was primarily a university network, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was a mere 4 years old.

For answers to some of your questions about the ITU summit, formally called the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT, pronounced "wicket"), read on:

Q: What's going to happen at the summit?
It's too early to say for sure. A series of ITU committees are meeting to draft proposals, with a deadline of December 12. On December 13, the final texts are presented. On December 14, the final treaty is signed.

But a coalition of Internet companies, nonprofit groups, and Western governments have taken extraordinary steps in the last few months to warn that proposals from nations with less than a sterling commitment to civil liberties -- among them Algeria, China, and Russia -- could do grave harm to the current free and open Internet.

It's no coincidence that some of those nations have geopolitical interests that are in conflict with those of the United States. The Dubai summit gives them an opportunity to depict the current way the Internet is governed as overly U.S.-dominated, and in need of significant changes, a proposal that many poorer nations support for reasons of their own.

Q: What are some of the concerns?
They deal primarily with areas including free speech, taxation, privacy, and cybersecurity. There are secondary concerns about the ITU process itself: meetings are held behind closed doors, and key documents are withheld from public scrutiny -- the precise opposite of the way traditional Internet standards-setting works. A site called WCITLeaks.org, by two policy analysts at the free-market Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Arlington, Va., has sprung up to shine more light on what's happening in secret.

Vint Cerf, co-creator of the Internet's technical underpinnings, warned in a CNN op-ed last week that the ITU "is the wrong place to make decisions about the future of the internet." That's because, he wrote: "Only governments have a vote at the ITU. This includes governments that do not support a free and open internet. Engineers, companies, and people that build and use the Web have no vote."

Google has organized a campaign to draw attention to the summit, saying some governments "are trying to use a closed-door meeting in December to regulate the Internet." Advocacy groups Fight for the Future and AccessNow have launched WhatIsTheITU.org to warn that the ITU poses "a risk to freedom of expression" online.

The Internet Society has told the ITU (PDF) that some of the proposals that could be inserted in the treaty will harm "the long term prospects of a global, open Internet." And Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the World Wide Web, warned this week about an ITU power grab, telling the BBC that: "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."

Q: What's the official position of the U.S. government?
In a sharply partisan U.S. election year, this has been a rare point of bipartisan accord: the House of Representatives unanimously approved a resolution this week aimed at sending a strong message to the ITU. It said, in part, that "the consistent and unequivocal policy of the United States [is] to promote a global Internet free from government control."

During a May 2012 House hearing, Democrats and Republicans alike warned that this month's summit could lead to a virtual takeover of the Internet if proposals from China, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are adopted.

"These are terrible ideas," Rep. Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, said. They could allow "governments to monitor and restrict content or impose economic costs upon international data flows," added Ambassador Philip Verveer, a deputy assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration.

Unless the U.S. and its allies can block these proposals, they "just might break the Internet by subjecting it to an international regulatory regime designed for old-fashioned telephone service," Rep. Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican said.

The U.S. could choose to refuse to sign and ratify the new treaty, of course. But that would create additional problems: U.S. network operators and their customers would still be expected to comply with new rules when dealing with foreign partners and governments, leading to a Balkanization of the Internet.

Q: Are the U.S. and its allies in Europe and Canada having any luck at the summit?
The U.S., Europe, and Canada advanced a proposal in Dubai to limit the ITU's rules to only telecommunications providers, not Internet companies like Google and Facebook.

"We want to make sure [the ITU treaty] stays focused squarely on the telecom sector," said U.S. Ambassador Terry Kramer, according to Reuters. "We thought we should deal with that up-front." Reuters reported this week that this effort stalled, but Kramer said a day later that the wire service report was inaccurate and progress was being made.

The ITU's own Web site describes the situation thus (keep reading for more on what Russia proposed):

A proposal from the Russian Federation to include in the [treaty] a new provision on the Internet (new Article 3A) was supported and endorsed by Algeria. China and the United Arab Emirates also agreed that the Internet should be included... Canada, France, Europe, Sweden, and the United States do not support the proposal, and do not want it discussed [in the committees]. The Chairman of the Conference deferred the discussion on the proposed new provision to the next plenary, with informal discussions in the meantime.

Q: What does the ITU say?
For their part, ITU officials have attempted to downplay criticism, saying that whatever is decided in Dubai is up to the member countries that are sending delegates to the summit. Hamadoun Touré, the ITU's secretary general, wrote in an opinion article in Wired last month:

Governments are looking for more effective frameworks to combat fraud and other crimes. Some commentators have suggested such frameworks could also legitimize censorship. However, Member States already have the right, as stated in Article 34 of the Constitution of ITU, to block any private telecommunications that appear "dangerous to the security of the State or contrary to its laws, to public order or to decency."

An ITU spokesman, Paul Conneally, wrote a blog post that defended the organization against allegations of secrecy. "At ITU, transparency is achieved at the national level, through national consultations in national languages," Conneally wrote. "A process we believe more inclusive than simply posting an English language text online."

Another WCITLeaks-posted document (PDF) from a staff retreat in Geneva in September shows the ITU is highly sensitive to public criticism and the perception it's engaged in a power grab. The internal document says: "Negative media coverage in the U.S. continues, and is now starting to appear in developing countries, and the Secretariat continues its effort to counter this." The ITU has also set up a blog that has denounced "some of the deliberate misinformation that has been spread before the conference."

In addition, delegates to the summit agreed to a suggestion by Touré to, in the words of the ITU, "issue a press release that would send a strong signal about the need to protect the right to freedom of expression."

Q: Why choose to have this event in Dubai?
In part it's due to which nations are willing to host a summit. But the choice of the United Arab Emirates is an odd one: the nation has blocked Web sites arbitrarily, has fined journalists for exposing corruption in a state-run company, and has enacted a law allowing any Internet user to be imprisoned for "opposition to Islam," "insult to any religion recognized by the state" or "contravening family values and principles," according to Reporters Without Borders.

FreedomHouse scores the UAE's press freedom laws as "not free," citing "restrictive legal provisions and widespread censorship, especially online."

Q: What's going on with deep packet inspection?
At another Dubai summit that took place last month, the ITU adopted recommendations proposed by China that will help network providers target BitTorrent uploaders, detect trading of copyrighted MP3 files, and, critics say, accelerate Internet censorship in repressive nations.

The ITU adopted the confidential Y.2770 standard for deep packet inspection -- only members, not the public, currently have access to the document -- despite objections from Germany. It had warned the ITU must "not standardize any technical means that would increase the exercise of control over telecommunications content, could be used to empower any censorship of content, or could impede the free flow of information and ideas."

Because Y.2770 is confidential, many details remain opaque. But a document (PDF) posted by a Korean standards body describes how network operators will be able to identify "embedded digital watermarks in MP3 data," discover "copyright protected audio content," find "Jabber messages with Spanish text," or "identify uploading BitTorrent users." Jabber is also known as XMPP, an instant messaging protocol.

In a joint blog post, Alissa Cooper and Emma Llansó from the Center for Democracy and Technology say that the U.N. agency "barely acknowledges that DPI has privacy implications, let alone does it provide a thorough analysis of how the potential privacy threats associated with the technology might be mitigated."

One reason why deep packet inspection is so controversial is that it has been used by repressive regimes -- dozens of which are members of the ITU -- to conduct extensive surveillance against their own citizens.

A Wall Street Journal report last year described how Amesys, a unit of French technology firm Bull SA, helped Moammar Gadhafi spy on his people. Boeing's Narus unit was in talks with Libya about controlling Skype, censoring YouTube, and blocking proxy servers, the report said.

The ITU said in a subsequent blog post that it has "resolved some concerns regarding maintaining privacy after it was noted that the standard deals with the identification of the application used rather than the inspection of users content."

Q: And taxes or other fees for Web companies and their users?
In June, a proposal to the ITU was leaked that would target the largest Web content providers, including Google, Facebook, Apple, and Netflix, and possibly cripple their ability to reach users in developing nations. It was drafted by the European Telecommunications Network Operators Association, or ETNO, a Brussels-based lobby group representing companies in 35 nations that wants the ITU to mandate these fees.

ETNO refers to it as the "principle of sending party network pays" -- an idea borrowed from the system set up to handle payments for international phone calls, where the recipient's network set the per minute price. A sender-pays framework, however, could prompt U.S.-based Internet services to reject connections from users in developing countries, who would become unaffordably expensive to communicate with.

Luigi Gambardella, chairman of the ETNO's executive board, told CNET in an interview in August that the principle of sender-party-pays for Internet traffic was a fair solution. (Not-so-coincidentally, a lot of Internet traffic is sent to Europe from the United States.)

"We believe that this situation is putting at risk our capacity to invest," Gambardella said. "We need to rethink together and to establish a new balance."

While this is the first time this proposal been advanced to the ITU, European network providers and phone companies have been bitterly complaining about U.S. content companies for some time. France Telecom, Telecom Italia, and Vodafone Group want to "require content providers like Apple and Google to pay fees linked to usage," Bloomberg reported in December 2011.

Q: What's the history of the U.N., the ITU, and the Internet?
This isn't exactly the first time that the U.N. or its agencies wanted to expand their influence over the Internet. At a 2004 summit at the U.N.'s headquarters in New York, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan criticized the current system through which Internet standards are set and domain names are handled -- that would be the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, and the Internet Engineering Task Force -- and delegates from Cuba, Ghana, Bolivia and Venezula objected to what they said was too much control of the process by the U.S. government and its allies.

Two years later, at another U.N. summit in Athens, then-ITU Secretary General Yoshio Utsumi criticized the current ICANN-dominated process, stressing that poorer nations are dissatisfied and are hoping to erode U.S. influence. "No matter what technical experts argue is the best system, no matter what self-serving justifications are made that this is the only possible way to do things, there are no systems or technologies that can eternally claim they are the best," Utsumi said.

In an interview with CNET at the time, Houlin Zhao, director of the ITU's Telecommunication Standardization Bureau, said: "The ITU is trying to ensure its value. Any public network of communications is naturally of interest to ITU. ITU has a lot of expertise and a lot of experience."

In 2008, CNET disclosed that the ITU was quietly drafting technical standards, proposed by the Chinese government, to define methods of tracing the original source of Internet communications and potentially curbing the ability of users to remain anonymous. A leaked document showed the trace-back mechanism was designed to be used by a government that "tries to identify the source of the negative articles" published by an anonymous author.

In 1999, a report from the United Nations Development Program proposed Internet e-mail taxes to help developing nations, suggesting that an appropriate amount would be the equivalent of one penny on every 100 e-mails that an individual might send. But the agency backed away from the idea a few days later.

And in 2010, the U.N.'s World Health Organization contemplated, but did not agree on, a "bit tax" on Internet traffic.

Q: What has Russia proposed?
Last fall, China, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan submitted a proposal to the U.N. asking for the creation of an "International Code of Conduct for Information Security." It called for international cooperation in controlling "dissemination of information" that "undermines other countries' political, economic, and social stability" -- which appears to mean censoring political speech appearing on Web pages, social network posts, and so on.

At the time, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin described the proposal as handing the U.N. "international control of the Internet."

Recently leaked documents show that Russia hasn't moderated its position much since. Russia proposed that the U.N. take over the responsibilities of the Internet Society and ICANN, which manages domain names and addresses. But after criticism of the proposal, which was first reported by CNET, Russia moderated its position.