The head of the United Nations telecommunication overseers sought Monday to quell worries about possible moves toward greater internet controls during global talks in Dubai, but any attempts for increased web regulations are likely to face stiff opposition from groups led by a major U.S. delegation.
The 11-day conference — seeking to update codes last reviewed when the web was virtually unknown — highlights the fundamental shift from tightly managed telecommunications networks to the borderless sweep of the internet.
But others at the Dubai conference — including a 123-member U.S. delegation with envoys from tech giants such as Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. — worry that any new UN oversight on the Internet security could be used by nations such as China and Russia to justify further tightening of web blocks and monitoring.
"Love the free and open internet? Tell the world's governments to keep it that way," said a message on the main search page of Google.com with a link for comments directed to the Dubai conference.
The Dubai gathering will confront questions that include how much sway the UN can exert over efforts such as battling cyber-crimes and expanding the internet into developing nations.
The secretary-general of the UN International Telecommunications Union, Hamadoun Toure, said that accusations how the meeting could limit web freedoms is "completely untrue" and predicted only "light-touch" regulations.
"Many countries will come to reaffirm their desire to see freedom of expression embedded in this conference," he told reporters on the meeting's opening day.
However, the outcome of the Dubai gathering is far from certain.
The 193 nations at the meeting have put forward more than 900 proposed regulatory changes covering the Internet, mobile roaming fees and satellite and fixed-line communications. Broad consensus is needed for any item to be adopted for any changes — the first major review of the UN's telecommunications agenda since 1988, well before the Internet age.
'Many countries will come to reaffirm their desire to see freedom of expression embedded in this conference.' —Head of the UN international telecommunications union, Hamadoun Toure
The gathering is also powerless to force nations to change their Internet policies, such as China's notorious "Great Firewall" and widespread blackouts of political opposition sites in places including Iran and the Gulf Arab states. Last week, Syria's Internet and telephone services disappeared for two days during some of the worst fighting in months to hit the capital, Damascus.
The head of the U.S. delegation in Dubai, Ambassador Terry Kramer, told reporters last week in Washington that all efforts should be made to avoid a "Balkanization" of the Internet in which each country would impose its own rules and standards that could disrupt the flow of commerce and information.
"That opens the door ... to content censorship," he said.
The International Trade Union Confederation, representing labour groups in more than 150 countries, claimed a bloc that includes China, Russia and several Middle East nations seeks to "pave the way for future restrictions on both internet content or its users."
"It is clear that some governments have an interest in changing the rules and regulations of the Internet," the confederation said in statement Monday.
Another likely battle that will take place in Dubai is over European-backed suggestions to change the pay structure of the Web to force content providers — such as Google, Facebook Inc. and others — to kick in an extra fee to reach users across borders. Advocates of the changes say the money raised could pay to expand broadband infrastructures in developing countries.
Toure said he hoped for a "landmark" accord on trying to bring broadband Internet to developing countries. "The Internet remains out of reach for 2/3 of world's people," said Toure, who is from Mali.
The UN telecommunications agency dates back to 1865, when it was known as the International Telegraph Union. It became a specialized agency of the United Nations in 1947. Originally overseeing the telegraph, over the decades it has expanded to include telephone, satellite and other advances in communications.