Secret negotiations among dozens of countries preparing for a United Nations summit could lead to changes in a global treaty that would diminish the Internet's role in economic growth and restrict the free flow of information.
The U.S. delegation to the World Conference on International Telecommunications to be held in Dubai in December has vowed to block any proposals from Russia and other countries that they believe threaten the Internet's current governing structure or give tacit approval to online censorship.
But those assurances have failed to ease fears that bureaucratic tinkering with the treaty could damage the world's most powerful engine for exchanging information, creating jobs and even launching revolutions, according to legal experts and civil liberties advocates who have been tracking the discussions. Social networks played a key role in the Arab Spring uprisings that last year upended regimes in Egypt and Tunisia.
Russia, for example, has proposed language that requires member states to ensure the public has unrestricted access and use of international telecommunications services, "except in cases where international telecommunications services are used for the purpose of interfering in the internal affairs or undermining the sovereignty, national security, territorial integrity and public safety of other states, or to divulge information of a sensitive nature," according to a May 3 U.N. document that details the various proposals for amending the treaty.
The wording of this provision could allow a country to cite a U.N. treaty as the basis for repressing political opposition. The provision also appears to contradict Article 19 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says people shall have the right to access information "through any media and regardless of frontiers."
An amended treaty would be binding on the United States if it is ratified by the Senate. But approval is not automatic. The treaty is sure to be scrutinized by lawmakers wary of its potential impact.
The U.N.'s International Telecommunication Union, which oversees the treaty, does not operate like the U.N. Security Council, where the United States has the power to veto resolutions to which it objects. The ITU works on a consensus basis. Proposals can be stopped from serious consideration if enough countries voice their objections. More than 190 nations will attend the Dubai conference, and the U.S. delegation is seeking support for its positions at the preparatory meetings that will continue until the conference convenes.
"It is important that when we have values, as we do in the area of free speech and the free flow of information, that we do everything that we can to articulate and sustain those values," Philip Verveer, deputy assistant secretary of state and U.S. coordinator for international communications and information policy, said in an interview.
The drafting and debating of proposals in preparation for the Dubai conference have taken place largely behind closed doors. Public interest groups have criticized the process and said it runs counter to development of sound public policy. In response to calls for transparency, two research fellows at George Mason University's Mercatus Center launched the website WCITLeaks.org earlier this month as a way to make documents that have been leaked to them by anonymous sources available publicly.
The negotiations have sparked rumors that the U.N. and the ITU are plotting to take control of the Internet from the loose coalition of nongovernmental organizations that establishes Internet policies, standards and rules, they said. The ITU's secretary general, Hamadoun Toure, has called the takeover rumor "ridiculous."
The ITU said the preparatory process is open to all member states, as well as hundreds of private sector and academic organizations. The member states, not the ITU, determine the rules of participation and are free to share documents and information as they see fit, the agency said in an emailed statement.
The treaty, known formally as the International Telecommunications Regulations, was developed in 1988 to deal with global telephone and telegraph systems that were often state-run. The conference in Dubai, which is being run by the ITU, will be the first time in more than 20 years that the treaty is being opened for revisions.
Independent organizations, including the Internet Society, the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers, and the Worldwide Web Consortium, for years have served as the Internet's governing bodies. They handle core tasks like network and domain name administration and make decisions based on input from the public and private sectors. This system allows the Internet to evolve organically and react rapidly to changes in technology, business practices and consumer behavior, according to open Internet advocates.
Yet for countries still grappling with how communications have been transformed by the Internet, ITU and the treaty are viewed as the best avenues for plugging themselves into the global information economy. For developing nations that don't have an effective broadband infrastructure, bureaucratic and regulatory measures can allow them to benefit financially from the traffic that crosses their borders.
But treaties are static instruments that often are unable to adapt and adjust to the fast pace of Internet innovation, said Sally Shipman Wentworth, senior manager for public policy at the nonprofit Internet Society. "Further, we do not believe that we should simply take the 1988 regulatory model that applied to the old telephone system and apply it to the Internet," she said.
A proposal offered by a European association of telecommunications network operators would put pressure on content providers such as Google, Facebook and Netflix to offset the costs of delivering Internet traffic to end-users. Traffic increasingly includes bandwidth-hungry video, and the proposal from the European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association essentially argues that the investment needed to expand and improve data delivery should be borne by the operators and the content providers.
Verveer called the proposal unworkable and said it would have unintended consequences, such as blocking Harvard, MIT and other universities from putting courses online at no cost to users in places where access to education is already limited.
"If it became necessary to pay in order to make these courses available, they would predictably become less available, which would be very unfortunate," he said.
Even what appear to be minor alterations to the treaty can have far-reaching consequences. A coalition of Arab states has proposed expanding the treaty's definition of telecommunications by adding the word "processing." The change, if made, would "essentially swallow the Internet's functions with only a tiny edit to existing rules," Robert McDowell, a Republican member of the Federal Communications Commission, said late last month at a congressional hearing.
The threat to Internet freedom won't come in the form of a "full-frontal assault," McDowell said at the hearing, "but through insidious and seemingly innocuous expansions of intergovernmental powers." His warning resonated with members of the House Energy and Commerce communications and technology subcommittee.
Several lawmakers questioned Verveer, who also testified, and McDowell about the relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Toure, the ITU's secretary general. Their fear is that Putin, who long has pushed for centralized control of the Internet, will use his allegedly close ties to Toure to accomplish that goal. Toure, a native of Mali, received advanced degrees in electronics and telecommunications from universities in Moscow and Leningrad.
"Is this relationship a concern?" asked Republican Rep. Greg Walden, the subcommittee's chairman. "What steps are we taking to be able to counterbalance that relationship?"
Verveer told Walden he has no doubts about Toure's honesty and fairness.
But McDowell struck a more ominous tone. Putin's "designs" need to be taken very seriously, he said, and urged proponents of Internet freedom to be on guard for "camouflaged subterfuge" that could threaten the Internet's future.