Russians Back Down From Leaked U.N. Internet Proposal

Russians Back Down From Leaked U.N. Internet Proposal

The Russian Federation has revised a controversial proposal to turn Internet governance over to the U.N.’s International Telecommunications Union, CNET has learned.

The revised proposal tones down some of the anti-Internet rhetoric of the original, but still calls on the UN to help member states seize control of key Internet engineering assets, including domain names, addresses and numbering.

Both the original proposal (PDF) and Saturday’s revised version (PDF) have now been posted on WCITLeaks, a Web site operated by researchers at George Mason University.

On Friday, CNET was first to report on the original proposal, which leaked out of secret negotiations leading up to the World Conference on International Telecommunications taking place next month in Dubai. WCIT will update a 1988 treaty dealing with international telecommunications.

Saturday’s changes in the Russian proposal are subtle, and do not modify the overall thrust of the document. Russia continues to propose the addition of a new article to the treaty giving the ITU specific authority over the Internet, something the agency has never had. The original proposal titled that Article “IP-based networks (Internet).” The revised document calls it simply “Internet.”

Most notably, the revised plan continues to assert national control over all Internet activity that crosses national borders, albeit with slightly less inflammatory language.

For example, a key amendment proposed by the Russians now says that “Member States shall have equal rights to manage the Internet, including in regard to the allotment, assignment, and reclamation of Internet numbering, naming, addressing and identification resources and to support for the operation and development of basic Internet infrastructure.”

The original version said simply, “Member states shall have equal rights in the international allocation of Internet addressing and identification resources.”

An addition to the treaty in the original proposal that “Member states shall have sovereign rights to manage the Internet within their national territory, as well as to manage national Internet domain names” was also revised, significantly removing the explicit reference to domain names. Domain names have long been the exclusive province of ICANN, a non-governmental organization.

Both versions of the Russian proposal justify warnings by government officials and policy advocates that some ITU member states—particularly Russia, China, and Iran—would use the conference to advance longstanding efforts to gain better control over key Internet resources currently managed by non-governmental, multi-stakeholder engineering groups such as the Internet Society and ICANN. These concerns were first raised in February by FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal.

For some countries, diminishing engineering-based Internet governance helps advance political goals to limit the kind of information that enters and leaves their borders. But even less-repressive countries are increasingly sympathetic to these efforts because they see potential revenue in controlling domain names and IP addresses, as well as other Internet resources.

For its part, the ITU has been struggling to dismiss claims that the conference would in any way deal with regulation of the Internet, or that the agency had a stake in proposals that expanded its own role.

Since the summer, the agency has undertaken an often-clumsy PR campaign to reassure Internet users that it had not received any proposals dealing with Internet governance, nor would it.

Leaked documents continue to contradict the ITU’s claims, however, raising rather than easing anxiety worldwide about the outcome of the conference. WCIT proposals and the conference negotiations are still officially being kept secret.

As recently as November 7, in an op-ed for Wired, ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Toure reiterated that “the conference will not examine management of critical Internet resources such as domain names and IP addresses. These functions are already performed by ICANN and regional Internet registries.”

But that statement contradicted an earlier acknowledgment from Toure hat some “preliminary” proposals had indeed suggested the ITU take over some or all management of domain names and addresses.

The Russian proposal is the boldest and most direct plan so far leaked from the process that would turn the ITU into an Internet regulator.

The ITU and the Russians have been working closely on cybersecurity matters, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has made no effort to hide his broader agenda. Earlier this year, Putin bluntly told Toure that Russia was keen on the idea of “establishing international control over the Internet using the monitoring and supervisory capability of the International Telecommunications Union.”

Sources told CNET today that the revision was likely a half-hearted effort by Russian officials to help the ITU rescue some credibility over what increasingly appears to be intentional misinformation about the nature of the negotiations and the contents of submitted proposals. The Web site Techdirt reported on Monday that the Russians were revising their proposal in response to criticism over the broad language of the leaked original.

For its part, the U.S. government has maintained a strongly bi-partisan view that the ITU should not be given any authority over the Internet. Earlier this year, Congress unanimously passed a joint resolution condemning efforts to change the multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance that has operated with remarkable success and efficiency for decades.

Ambassador Terry Kramer, who will lead the U.S. delegation to WCIT, has said repeatedly that confining the U.N. treaty to international telecommunications is a “non negotiable” item for the U.S.

Though reassuring, that hardly means the Russian proposal is a dead letter.

In the worst-case scenario, WCIT may generate a new version of the treaty which the U.S. and other nations refuse to ratify. That, however, could lead to a splintering of international regulations and the collapse of a single Internet with one set of names, addresses, protocols, and largely informal transit agreements. U.S. companies attempting to do business abroad or even to send traffic outside the U.S. could be forced to abide by different requirements in different countries, the start of a dangerous information trade war.

Even if every Internet-related proposal for WCIT is rejected, the process will still demonstrate the increasingly explicit desire of some countries to undermine the current governance model for political and economic reasons, and of the ITU’s willingness to cooperate with those countries in the interest of maintaining its own relevance in an age of converged IP-based communications for voice, video, and data.

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