Bomboy is editor-in-chief for the National Constitution Center
Is the future of Internet free speech really at stake today as private United Nations meetings start in Dubai about a new international treaty? Or is the controversy massively overblown?
There seems to be some truth in both claims, as a prominent group of American officials is in Dubai for an international summit called the World Conference on International Telecommunications (or WCIT).
The U.N. does sponsor the group holding the summit in Dubai, and the issues of Internet censorship and "fees" related to the Internet are in two proposals leaked to the public in advance of the closed-door meeting.
But the U.N. itself wouldn't have a direct role in Internet censorship, and an indirect role, at the most, in allowing nations to charge Internet providers like Google for access to their markets.
The debate in Dubai is over some familiar American concepts, such as freedom of speech, taxation, sovereignty, and equal access to markets.
WCIT is run by the U.N.-sponsored International Telecommunications Union, and it is seeking to update a 1988 document called the International Telecommunication Regulations Treaty.
The head of the ITU, Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré, says that fears that a new treaty would allow countries to tax Internet content providers and give the ITU and its member nations the power to control Internet addresses are unfounded.
In an editorial on Wired, Touré said, "The sole focus of the event is making regulations valuable to all stakeholders, creating a robust pillar to support future growth in global communications." He's also called the press coverage of the conference "sensationalist."
So why is a group of 120 heavy hitters from the United States in Dubai? The United States team, led by Ambassador Terry Kramer, includes National Telecommunications and Information Administration Chief Larry Strickling, Ambassador Philip Verveer of the State Department, and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.
In all, 193 countries are at the summit, with about 1,500 delegates.
The event is serious enough that in a highly charged partisan environment of Washington, the Obama administration, top Republicans and Democrats in Congress, and even top tax fighter Grover Norquist all agree the Internet should be kept free when it comes to access and taxes.
Leaked proposals from Russia and a European telecom group, which may be presented at the WCIT, have caused much of the controversy.
Two research fellows at George Mason University have set up a website called WCITleaks, where the documents for the closed-door meeting have been appearing for months, including the two controversial ones.
Russia has been attached to a proposal, leaked last month, that would take away the power of ICANN, a U.S.-based nonpartisan agency that regulates all Internet addresses, and give that power to the U.N. and individual nations.
ICANN operates as a nonprofit through a contract with the United States' Commerce Department. That contract was renewed in August and ends in September 2015.
In reality, some countries already block Web access, but an official mandate to let ITU members control how Internet access points are assigned and monitored would make the whole process much easier to manage—and censor.
Some critics say the real issue is a power grab to take ICANN away from any swaying influence exerted on it by the U.S. government.
The leak of the Russian proposal last month drew a sharp response from U.S. ambassador Kramer.
"There have been a variety of proposals that have come in that are alarming. There have been proposals that have suggested that the ITU should enter the Internet governance business," Kramer said. "There have been active recommendations that there be an invasive approach of governments in managing the Internet … These fundamentally violate everything that we believe in in terms of democracy and opportunities for individuals, and we're going to vigorously oppose any proposals of that nature."
Larry Downes, an author who wrote two recent commentaries about the ITU controversy, said that Touré has sent mixed messages about the Russian proposal, and that Touré denied receiving the Russian proposal days after it was leaked online. (Touré also went to school in Leningrad and Moscow.)
The other big issue is a proposal that started with a group of European telecom operators, to charge Internet content providers fees or taxes when they serve Web content to users inside various countries.
The concept is called "sender party pays" and was floated out by the European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association (ETNO) this summer. One benefit is that European telecom companies could use the revenue to improve their networks.
The European Union didn't buy into the ETNO proposal and doesn't support it, but the idea has received support in other nations, and there are reports Cameroon will introduce it at the current summit in Dubai.
"That model, in general, lends itself to fewer providers, higher prices, slower take-up of Internet, slower economic growth," Kramer said in October.
Companies like Google, Facebook, and Netflix strongly oppose the concept of sender party pays.
In the end, the WCIT meeting will probably include an intense debate about the subject of who controls the Internet and how nations deal with issues about fair access, privacy, and combating cybercrime.
It's unknown if any votes will be taken to change the treaty, but the United States and the European nations (who oppose the Russian and ETNO proposals) are under no obligation to sign an amended treaty.
There also are questions about a conflict between the passage of an "Internet tax" and international laws already on the books at the World Trade Organization, and if the ITU even has standing to control the Internet, since it was designed to monitor telephone, television, and radio networks.