An unprecedented debate over how the global Internet is governed is set to dominate a meeting of officials in Dubai next week, with many countries pushing to give a United Nations body broad regulatory powers even as the United States and others contend such a move could mean the end of the open Internet.
The 12-day conference of the International Telecommunications Union, a 157-year-old organization that's now an arm of the United Nations, largely pits revenue-seeking developing countries and authoritarian regimes that want more control over Internet content against US policymakers and private Net companies that prefer the status quo.
Many of the proposals have drawn fury from free-speech and human-rights advocates and have prompted resolutions from the US Congress and the European Parliament, calling for the current decentralized system of governance to remain in place.
While specifics of some of the most contentious proposals remain secret, leaked drafts show that Russia is seeking rules giving individual countries broad permission to shape the content and structure of the Internet within their borders, while a group of Arab countries is advocating universal identification of Internet users. Some developing countries and telecom providers, meanwhile, want to make content providers pay for Internet transmission.
Fundamentally, most of the 193 countries in the ITU seem eager to enshrine the idea that the U.N. agency, rather than today's hodgepodge of private companies and nonprofit groups, should govern the Internet. The ITU meeting, which aims to update a longstanding treaty on how telecom companies interact across borders, will also tackle other topics such as extending wireless coverage into rural areas.
If a majority of the ITU countries approve U.N. dominion over the Internet along with onerous rules, a backlash could lead to battles in Western countries over whether to ratify the treaty, with tech companies rallying ordinary Internet users against it and some telecom carriers supporting it.
In fact, dozens of countries including China, Russia and some Arab states, already restrict Internet access within their own borders, but those governments would have greater leverage over Internet content and service providers if the changes were backed up by international agreement.
Amid the escalating rhetoric, search king Google last week asked users to "pledge your support for the free and open Internet" on social media, raising the specter of a grassroots outpouring of the sort that blocked American copyright legislation and a global anti-piracy treaty earlier this year.
Google's Vint Cerf, the ordinarily diplomatic co-author of the basic protocol for Internet data, denounced the proposed new rules as hopeless efforts by some governments and state-controlled telecom authorities to assert their power.
"These persistent attempts are just evidence that this breed of dinosaurs, with their pea-sized brains, hasn't figured out that they are dead yet, because the signal hasn't traveled up their long necks," Cerf told Reuters.
The ITU's top official, Secretary-General Hamadoun TourÃ©, sought to downplay the concerns in a separate interview, stressing to Reuters that even though updates to the treaty could be approved by a simple majority, in practice nothing will be adopted without near-unanimity.
"Voting means winners and losers. We can't afford that in the ITU," said TourÃ©, a former satellite engineer from Mali who was educated in Russia.
TourÃ© predicted that only "light-touch" regulation on cyber-security will emerge by "consensus," using a deliberately vague term that implies something between a majority and unanimity.
He rejected criticism that the ITU's historic role in coordinating phone carriers leaves it unfit to corral the unruly Internet, comparing the Web to a transportation system.
"Because you own the roads, you don't own the cars and especially not the goods they are transporting. But when you buy a car you don't buy the road," TourÃ© said. "You need to know the number of cars and their size and weight so you can build the bridges and set the right number of lanes. You need light-touch regulation to set down a few traffic lights."
Because the proposals from Russia, China and others are more extreme, TourÃ© has been able to cast mild regulation as a compromise accommodating nearly everyone.
Two leaked Russian proposals say nations should have the sovereign right "to regulate the national Internet segment." An August draft proposal from a group of 17 Arab countries called for transmission recipients to receive "identity information" about the senders, potentially endangering the anonymity of political dissidents, among others.
A US State Department envoy to the gathering and Cerf agreed with TourÃ© that there is unlikely to be any drastic change emerging from Dubai.
"The decisions are going to be by consensus," said US delegation chief Terry Kramer. He said anti-anonymity measures such as mandatory Internet address tracing won't be adopted because of opposition by the United States and others.
"We're a strong voice, given a lot of the heritage," Kramer said, referring to the US invention and rapid development of the Internet. "A lot of European markets are very similar, and a lot of Asian counties are supportive, except China."
Despite the reassuring words, a fresh leak over the weekend showed that the ITU's top managers viewed a badly split conference as a realistic prospect less than three months ago.
The leaked program for a "senior management retreat" for the ITU in early September included a summary discussion of the most probable outcomes from Dubai, concluding that the two likeliest scenarios involved major reworkings of the treaty that the United States would then refuse to sign. The only difference between the scenarios lay in how many other developed countries sided with the Americans.
ITU officials didn't dispute the authenticity of the document, which was published by Jerry Brito, a researcher at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University as part of a continuing series of ITU-related leaks.
TourÃ© said that because the disagreements are so vast, the conference probably will end up with something resembling the ITU's earlier formula for trying to protect children online - an agreement to cooperate more and share laws and best practices, perhaps with hotlines to head off misunderstandings.
"From Dubai, what I personally expect is to see some kind of principles saying cyberspace is a global phenomenon and it can only have global responses," TourÃ© said. "I just intend to put down some key principles there that will lay the seeds for something in the future."
Even vague terms could be used as a pretext for more oppressive policies in various countries, though, and activists and industry leaders fear those countries might also band together by region to offer very different Internet experiences.
In some ways, the U.N. involvement reflects a reversal that has already begun.
The United States has steadily diminished its official role in Internet governance, and many nations have stepped up their filtering and surveillance. More than 40 countries now filter the Net that their citizens see, said Ronald Deibert, a University of Toronto political science professor and authority on international conflicts in cyberspace.
Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said this month that the Net is already on the road to Balkanization, with people in different countries getting very different experiences from the services provided by Google, Skype and others.
This month, a new law in Russia took effect that allows the federal government to order a Website offline without a court hearing. Iran recently rolled out a version of the Internet that replaced the real thing within its borders. A growing number of countries, including China and India, order sites to censor themselves for political, religious and other content.
China, which has the world's largest number of Internet users, also blocks access to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter among other sites within its borders.
The loose governance of the Net currently depends on the non-profit ICANN, which oversees the Web's address system, along with voluntary standard-setting bodies and a patchwork of national laws and regional agreements. Many countries see it as a US-dominated system.
The US isolation within the ITU is exacerbated by it being home to many of the biggest technology companies - and by the fact that it could have military reasons for wanting to preserve online anonymity. The Internet emerged as a critical military domain with the 2010 discovery of Stuxnet, a computer worm developed at least in part by the United States that attacked Iran's nuclear program.
Whatever the outcome in Dubai, the conference stands a good chance of becoming a historic turning point for the Internet.
"I see this as a constitutional moment for global cyberspace, where we can stand back and say, `Who should be in charge?' said Deibert. "What are the rules of the road?"