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Dubai meeting raises spectre of free, open internet coming to an end

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Government ''handcuffs'' could be able to restrain the world wide web.

IT IS the ''most important meeting you've never heard of'' - a behind-closed-doors battle for control of the internet that one of the web's founders fears may ''put government handcuffs on the net''.

A United Nations organisation representing 193 countries is reviewing international agreements governing telecommunications with a view to expanding its regulatory authority over the internet.

The International Telecommunications Union will hold a summit in Dubai in December where member countries will negotiate a treaty (last updated 24 years ago in Melbourne) that sets out regulations on how international voice, data and video traffic is handled.

The union, founded in 1865 at the dawn of the telegraph, presently focuses on telecommunications networks and radio frequency allocations but some members such as Russia, China and Iran are set to use the summit to try to expand the treaty to include internet regulation.

Secret proposals for the conference have been leaked, giving rise to fears that the days of a free, open internet are coming to an end.

Chris Disspain, chief executive of Australian domain name administrator auDA, said the push to control the internet through a government-centric UN-run model would ''stifle innovation'' and result in binding regulations on member governments.

''What it could mean is a whole series of … new regulations reached by consensus or horse trading among governments, with no input from the community, on such things as data retention, censorship, usage, charging models, all sorts of things,'' Disspain said.

Disspain, who is a member of the UN Secretary-General's Internet Governance Multi-stakeholder Advisory Group, said he was aware of European telco proposals for a shift to a user-pays model for services such as email.

He said that at the UN many proposals get ''nodded through because people can't be bothered objecting'' and there was a risk that ''active governments like China and Iran and Russia'' who were pushing to control the internet ''may end up winning the day''.

The issues will be discussed in Canberra today and tomorrow at the first Australian Internet Governance Forum.

Google Australia, one of the forum's sponsors, said the internet risks becoming a ''slow and stale shadow of its former self'' and it would use the event ''to draw attention to global threats to the web's freedom from undemocratic and totalitarian regimes, using the ITU to drive their agenda, and the risks for Australia''.

Washington DC-based Tom Wheeler, who previously worked in telco policy for three decades including as CEO of the US Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, called the Dubai summit ''the most important meeting you've never heard of''.

''It is a struggle between nation-states - and their vassals - created in an era when networks aggregated economic and political power, and the new era in which the network's distributed architecture has a disaggregating effect on both economic and political power.''

Vinton Cerf, Google's chief internet evangelist who has been recognised as one of the ''fathers of the internet'', wrote in The New York Times in May that the internet stands at a ''crossroads'' and attempts to make it a more closed, controlled medium could ''wreak significant social and economic damage''.

''The decisions in Dubai in December have the potential to put government handcuffs on the net,'' Cerf said. ''To prevent that - and keep the internet open and free for the next generations - we need to prevent a fundamental shift in how the internet is governed.''

He said of the 193 member countries, 40 censor internet content (up from four in 2002), and at the conference repressive regimes had an equal voting power to everyone else.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said last June the goal of Russia and its allies was ''establishing international control over the internet'' through the telecommunications union. Other countries including China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have also submitted proposals to the UN for international internet regulation.

The US, which has a significant influence on the internet and its core infrastructure, wants to maintain the status quo.

US ambassador Terry Kramer, who will head the US delegation to the telecommunications union conference, said this week that doing nothing ''would not be a terrible outcome at all'', arguing the internet should be left as free and open as possible.

A spokesman for Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said the multilateral forums that currently govern the internet have delivered us the ''internet as we know it'' and ''to change the existing arrangements a strong case would need to be made''.