An unprecedented debate over how the global internet is governed is set to dominate a meeting of officials in Dubai, with many countries pushing to give a UN body broad regulatory powers even as the US and others contend such a move could mean the end of the "open internet".
The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), an agency of the UN responsible for international information and communication technologies regulations, will host the 12-day conference that begins on Monday.
|Thomas Crampton, a social media analyst, speaks to Al Jazeera about the significance of the ITU summit
Government regulators from 193 countries will meet to revise a wide-ranging communications treaty for the first time since 1988. The treaty regulates how telephone and other telecommunications traffic is exchanged internationally.
The conference largely pits revenue-seeking developing countries and authoritarian governments that want more control over internet content against US policymakers and private net companies that prefer the status quo.
Thomas Crampton, a social media analyst, told Al Jazeera that much is at stake in the negotiations.
"The ITU obviously did a tremendous job in building up the internet to where we are today, but this is the kind of thing where you can never take it for granted, and we must listen very carefully to those raising concerns about censorship," he said.
"The general consensus that comes out of this meeting will have a very big impact on the internet going forward... and could project forward a very sharp shift in the direction that free expression, and the way in which the internet can support that going forward."
Many of the proposals have drawn anger from free-speech and human-rights advocates and have prompted resolutions from the US congress and the EU, calling for the current decentralised system of governance to remain in place.
Fundamentally, most of the 193 countries in the ITU seem eager to enshrine the idea that the UN agency, rather than today's selection of private companies and non-profit groups, should govern the internet.
They say that a new regime is needed to deal with the surge in cybercrime and more recent military attacks.
The ITU meeting will also tackle other topics such as extending wireless coverage into rural areas.
|Google users have voiced their fears for internet censorship as future of the web is debated in Dubai [AFP]
If a majority of the ITU countries approve UN dominion over the internet along with difficult rules, a backlash could lead to battles in Western countries over whether to ratify the treaty, with tech companies rallying ordinary internet users against it and some telecom carriers supporting it.
In fact, dozens of countries including China, Russia and some Arab states, already restrict internet access within their own borders. Those governments would have greater leverage over internet content and service providers if the changes were backed up by international agreement.
EU member states, however, are preparing to fight as a bloc alongside the US to prevent a move by Russia and countries in Africa to impose a levy on internet traffic and make it easier to track users' activities.
The ITU's senior official, Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré, sought to downplay the concerns, stressing to the Reuters news agency that even though updates to the treaty could be approved by a simple majority, in practice nothing will be adopted without near-unanimity.
"Voting means winners and losers. We can't afford that in the ITU," said Touré, a former satellite engineer from Mali who was educated in Russia.
Touré predicted that only "light-touch" regulation on cyber-security will emerge by "consensus", using a deliberately vague term that implies something between a majority and unanimity.