Dubai - A Russia-led proposal calling for sweeping new governmental powers to regulate cyberspace could enable countries to block some Web locations and wrest control of allotting Internet addresses from a US-based body.
The proposal, co-signed by Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates, added to fears in some Western countries of a stalemate midway through a 12-day conference in Dubai to rewrite a longstanding treaty on international communications.
Russia and its supporters, which include many African and Arab states, seek to formally extend the remit of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to govern many aspects of the Internet.
The United States, Europe and other allies including Australia and Japan insist the treaty should continue to apply only to traditional telecommunications such as international wireline and wireless calls.
Countries can opt out of parts of the revised treaty when it emerges or refuse to sign it altogether.
“If we have no agreement it will create political tension around the Internet,” said Markus Kummer, vice president for public policy at industry think tank The Internet Society.
A leaked draft of the Russia-led proposals would give countries “equal rights to manage the Internet including in regard to the allotment, assignment and reclamation of Internet numbering.”
This could allow governments to render websites within their borders inaccessible, even via proxy servers or other countries. It also could allow for multinational pacts in which countries could terminate access to websites at each others' request.
Such moves would undermine ICANN, a self-governing nonprofit organisation under contract to the US Department of Commerce, which is ultimately responsible for making sure that people trying to reach a given website actually get there.
“Much of the Internet was developed from US research funding, and the US has kept a residual role, so many other governments say it's not right that one government 'controls' the Internet,” said Kummer.
“The irony is the US has a very laid-back role and protects the Internet from political interference, but the fact it's the US makes it highly political.”
“The reason some countries want to create national control over addresses is so they can have another point of control,” said Rod Beckstrom, until recently chief executive of ICANN, which currently sits atop the addressing system.
Decentralising the process could prove chaotic if many countries demand that companies use only their national system, he told Reuters.
Beyond web locations and addresses, the Russia-led coalition document says ITU member states should be able to control other elements of the Internet's infrastructure within their borders, as Russia has sought for months.
The revision would give nations the explicit right to “implement policy” on net governance and “regulate the national Internet segment,” the draft says.
“If you throw in addressing and naming, that puts the entire ecosystem in play, which is what the US and EU said they would never agree to,” said a Western participant at the conference who asked not to be named to maintain his ability to negotiate.
“You're almost guaranteeing lock-up in certain areas that might prevent the other areas from easily going forward,” he said.
The coalition wants the new treaty to include measures to combat spam email, but its definition of spam is so broad that it could be applied to almost any emailed message.
That would provide a pretext for authoritarian regimes to suppress opponents, critics warn, while also doing little to solve what is a technical problem.
Another clause states any country should have the right to know the route of telecom traffic “where technically feasible,” which differs from an earlier submission and appears to acknowledge tracing Internet traffic is impractical.
“Internet networks don't follow national borders and a lot of governments are not happy with that notion, that they don't have control over their territory,” said Kummer. “Some governments feel threatened, which they see as undermining their national sovereignty.”
Egypt was named as a co-author of the Russia-led submission, but on Sunday it disavowed the document in what may be a sign of cracks emerging in the loose anti-US coalition.
“Our name was associated to this proposal by mere misunderstanding,” Nashwa Gad, a department manager at Egypt's Ministry of Communications & Information Technology (MCIT), said in an emailed statement to Reuters.
“Egypt has always been supporting the basic Internet principles that ... the Internet should remain free, open, liberal. We do not see that the ITU mandate deals with the Internet.”
The United States has made a counterproposal co-signed by Canada that would stop the treaty being applied to Internet companies such as Google or government and business networks.
It say increasing the treaty's scope could provide a platform for governments to stifle free speech, reduce online anonymity and censor Internet content.
But Russia and its supporters argue they need new powers to able to fight cyber crime and protect networks.
After six days of largely private talks, very little seems to have been agreed, with the main plenary committee meeting on Monday to again consider the US-Canada proposal among others.
The ITU usually agrees decisions by consensus, but the intransigence of both sides means it could come down to a vote, which may leave the United States and its allies in the minority.
“The US is not considering walking out of the conference and is still participating as normal,” a US spokesman said in an emailed statement, denying an earlier report that the United States could quit the summit, which ends on Friday. - Reuters