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WCIT pits U.S. against UN bloc for Internet Regulation

By Michael Tanenbaum News | Current Affairs Dec 13, 2012
The Worldwide Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai could alter the future of Internet regulation and control.
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According to a report from Bloomberg's Tech Blog, this could be a very influential week for the future of regulatory control on the Internet. 

At the Worldwide Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai, public, private, and civil society representatives from around the world are battling it out over the technical standards driving the Internet as we currently know it. The current standard allowing international telephone networks to communicate is led by the independent, U.S.-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which functions as phone book for the Internet, managing the global DNS since its founding in 1988.  

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The WCIT conference is an extension of the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency with several countries looking to overhaul the U.S.-led system. According to Bloomberg, an 8-nation bloc -- including China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates -- today resubmitted a proposal that would transfer some control to the UN while granting more sovereign control to individual nations for managing Internet addresses in their own territories. 

Opponents of the proposal include the United States, Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, and Sweden. The Obama administration has published a blog outlining its aims at the WCIT and its opposition to the present proposal. In essence, the U.S. position is that telecommunications infrastructure should not be confused with the information traversing it. Instead of a major regulatory overhaul at the national or international level, the U.S. stance is to update standards so that they reflect today's market realities, particularly in the area of mobile telecommunications. 

From the Bloomberg report: 

"The threat is that if every country were allowed to manage their own Internet address books, sites seen as troublesome by the governments could be easily — and silently — eliminated by removing them from the index and making them permanently inaccessible to the outside world."

China's history of web censorship relative to Google services, as well as the recent Internet blackout in Syria, are immediate examples of the dangers inherent in a model based on national discretion, even with UN backing. While defending what opponents may perceive as U.S. hegemony over the Internet isn't always a popular tune, and while the U.S. Congress has its own streaky profile on issues surrounding Internet freedom, the proposed alternative could checker and disjoin the current framework for interoperability. 

Should control of the system become more democratic and sovereign among nations, it could well become less democratic within them and undermine global exchange. In its structure, the Internet could risk becoming fundamentally more political, rather than continuing as the unprecedented forum for political exchange it has, for the most part, freely become. 

For a comprehensive look at the battle and its various players, the following May feature from Vanity Fair is highly recommended, as it examines the intersections between law enforcement, opposition groups, legislators, corporate practice, global competition, and of course, rhetoric. 

Per the Bloomberg report, more will be known out of the WCIT tomorrow, when the conference is scheduled to conclude. 

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