Two years ago, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) convened the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to review the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) that “serve as the binding global treaty designed to facilitate international interconnection and interoperability of information and communication services.” Under consideration were more than 400 proposals, some of which were designed to enhance government ability to block content and tax and regulate the Internet. The proposals would inhibit the innovation and expansion of the Internet that has contributed to economic growth in the U.S. and around the world. After contentious negotiations, the U.S. and dozens of other countries announced that they could not support the proposed treaty. In the end, only 89 countries, including most authoritarian regimes such as Russia and China, signed the new ITRs and will be bound by the treaty’s terms.

This week, the ITU is meeting in Busan, South Korea, for its 2014 Plenipotentiary Conference where authoritarian governments are again expected to try to assert United Nations authority over the Internet via the ITU. In a statement, Russian Federation Minister of Telecom and Mass Communications, Nikolay Nikiforov, made clear his government’s position (unofficially translated):

We must not forget that ICT [information and communication technologies] is used for criminal purposes, including on cross-border basis. This requires mobilization of the international community to prevent the use of ICT in a manner contrary to the UN Charter, the Charter, the Convention and the regulations of the ITU. For successful, reliable and safe use of ICT, international norms and rules governing relations in this area are required.

Russian Federation believes that such rules should be developed under the auspices of UN institutions. They should be based on adherence to the principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of States and their equal rights in the management of the Internet, the sovereign right of States to control the Internet in the national information space and to be based on international law and respect for fundamental human rights and freedoms….

We are grateful to the United States for what they gave to the world, the Internet, but now it is everywhere, in all countries. And we need to find the form and mechanisms of management, suiting everyone and especially suiting our citizens. We are well aware that without competition the new technologies are not developed. But personal data must be protected, namely the state must act as guarantors of the rights of its citizens to privacy and protection of their personal data.

Therefore, it is the state that should determine the fate of the Internet.

This should be of great concern to the U.S. and the Internet community. The U.S. has contracted with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to manage core functions of the Internet since ICANN was established in 1998. During that time, the Internet has grown and prospered in large part because the U.S. government has very rarely interfered.

In March 2014, partially motivated by a desire to blunt state arguments for U.N. governance of the Internet in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks, the U.S. government announced that it did not intend to renew its contract with ICANN, which expires in September 2015, and mandated that the organization consult with “global stakeholders” to agree on an alternative to the “current role played by NTIA in the coordination of the Internet’s domain name system (DNS).”

When making the initial announcement, the U.S. stated it would not withdraw from the process until an acceptable alternative mechanism is developed that must:

  1. “Support and enhance the multi-stakeholder model”;
  2. “Maintain the security, stability, and resiliency of the Internet DNS”;
  3. “Meet the needs and expectation of the global customers and partners of the IANA [Internet Assigned Numbers Authority] services”; and
  4. “Maintain the openness of the Internet.”

Additionally, the U.S. stated that it “will not accept a proposal that replaces the [U.S.] role with a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution.” In other words, the U.S. prefers governance of the Internet to be private-sector-led or, at least, with government not having a privileged position. This is directly at odds with the goal of Russia and other authoritarian governments.

ICANN is currently consulting with various Internet constituencies, both government and private, in a “multi-stakeholder” process to negotiate its proposal, which is expected to be finalized next summer. This proposal will be assessed by the U.S. If acceptable, the U.S. will allow the contract to expire, which would end its oversight role over ICANN. If it is not acceptable, the U.S. has the option to extend the current contract and request that ICANN revise its proposal.

But if that plan is to see fruition, first the U.S. must blunt countervailing pressures in the ITU Plenipotentiary over the next three weeks and other intergovernmental meetings over the next year. Reportedly, the U.S. is determined to convince the other ITU member states that the ITU is not the correct forum for Internet governance. Every user of the Internet who values a free and dynamic Internet should support their efforts.