A landmark attempt to set global rules for overseeing the Internet threatened to fall apart on Friday as a rift pitting the United States and some Western countries against the rest of the world widened, participants in the talks said.
A 12-day conference of the International Telecommunications Union, taking place in Dubai, is supposed to result in the adoption of a new international treaty governing trans-border communications.
But in a critical session at the midpoint of the conference on Friday, delegates refused to adopt a U.S.-Canadian proposal to limit the treaty's scope to traditional communications carriers and exclude Internet companies such as Google, the ITU said on its website.
Further complicating the negotiations was what a U.S. official at the talks called the "surprise" announcement of an accord among some Arab states, Russia and other countries to pursue treaty amendments that are expected to include Internet provisions unacceptable to the United States
A still-secret draft of the coalition's proposals is to be introduced soon by the United Arab Emirates, the official said.
"It doesn't look good," said a former U.S. intelligence official tracking the talks for private technology clients.
The emergence of the new coalition, whose members are generally seeking greater Internet censorship and surveillance, is likely to harden battle lines separating those countries from the United States and some allies in Western Europe.
The United States and others objected to the introduction of complex new material midway through the conference.
"All of the indicators we have so far is it's something that could be a clear effort to extend the treaty to cover Net governance," said policy counsel Emma Llanso of the nonprofit Center for Democracy & Technology, which draws funding from Google and other U.S. Internet companies.
"What we're seeing is governments putting forward their visions of the future of the Internet, and if we see a large group of governments form that sees an Internet a lot more locked down and controlled, that's a big concern."
Concerns about government controls
The U.S. ambassador to the conference said in an earlier interview that his country would not sign any agreement that dramatically increased government controls over the Internet.
That would potentially isolate America and its allies from much of the world, and technology leaders fear that the rest of the globe would agree on actions such as identifying political dissidents who use the Internet and perhaps trying to alter the Net's architecture to permit more control.
The 147-year-old ITU, which is now under the auspices of the United Nations, historically has set technology standards and established payment customs for international phone calls. But under Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré, it has inched toward cyber-security and electronic content issues, arguing that Internet traffic goes over phone lines and is therefore within its purview.
The ITU is considering other issues in its most extensive rewrite of the treaty in 15 years, including proposals that content providers shoulder the costs of transmission. But none is as controversial as the projected Internet controls.
The Internet's infrastructure, while initially funded in part by the U.S. government, is now largely in private hands. It has been subject to little government control, although many nations have attempted to regulate Internet communications in various ways.
ICANN, a self-governing nonprofit under contract to the U.S. Department of Commerce, is ultimately responsible for making sure that people trying to reach a given website actually get there, but most technology policies are developed by industry groups.
At the ITU meeting, the American delegation had counted on support from at least Japan, Australia and other affluent democracies.
But its effort to stave off wholesale changes has been hindered by complications in Western Europe, where some countries were supporting a change to the economic model that would have Google, Facebook and others pay for at least some of the costs of Internet transmission.
Smaller groups at the ITU conference will work through the weekend, with the full body meeting again on Monday.
© Thomson Reuters 2012