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Friday, May 10, 2013

United Nations Agency to Discuss Internet Governance Again

Here we go again. The United Nations is trying to take over the Internet! Or maybe it isn’t.

Only five months ago, at a treaty conference convened by a U.N. agency called the International Telecommunication Union, the U.S. delegation stormed out, refusing to sign the proposed document, saying it posed a threat to the current, decentralized Internet governance system. Several dozen other countries joined the boycott.

The telecommunication union has always insisted that the treaty, which it is still lobbying holdout governments to sign, had nothing to do with the Internet, even though pretty much everyone else in Dubai seemed to think it did.

Next week, beginning Monday, the agency can make no such protestations about a meeting it is convening in Geneva. The stated topic of the World Telecommunication Policy Forum is, yes, Internet governance.

On the agenda are issues like the expansion of broadband access and the adoption of the IPv6 protocol for Internet addresses. But it doesn’t look like the telecommunications union is planning an Internet land grab; one of six draft “opinions” prepared for the meeting urges support for “multistakeholderism in Internet governance.” That is jargon for the current sharing of duties among a variety of acronym-rich groups with representation from government, the private sector and non-governmental organizations.

This time around there will be no treaty, but the opinions are intended to help set the agenda for a plenipotentiary meeting of the telecommunications union next year â€" which, given the fireworks in Dubai, promises to be a doozy.

Even if the official opinions are largely banal, individual governments will have the right to stand up in Geneva next week to make their own policy statements. Countries like Russia and China, as well as governments in some parts of Africa and the Middle East, have made no secret of their desire to exercise more control over things like the Internet address system.

Congress has been looking at Internet governance, too. In April, the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved a bill stating that “it is the policy of the United States to preserve and advance the successful multistakeholder model that governs the Internet.”

But some critics noted that wording adding that the United States also supported “a global Internet free from government control” was removed from the bill.

“It’s interesting that just as the I.T.U. is raising these issues, the U.S. is backing down on saying we don’t want the Internet under government control,’’ said Milton Mueller, author of “Ruling the Root: Internet Governance and the Taming of Cyberspace.”

Others say they see signs of an effort to avoid a repeat of the fractious tone that marked the December treaty negotiations.

“The Dubai conference was unnecessarily divisive,” said Markus Kummer, vice president for public policy at the Internet Society, a non-profit group that campaigns for an open Internet. “There are some governments with extreme positions, but most are somewhere in the middle.”