SAN FRANCISCO — The world’s major internet companies, backed by US policy makers, got much of what they wanted last week when many nations refused to sign a global telecommunications treaty that opponents feared could lead to greater government control over online content and communications.
In rejecting even mild internet language in the updated International Telecommunications Union (ITU) treaty and persuading dozens of other countries to refuse their signatures, the US made a powerful statement in support of the open internet, US officials and industry leaders said.
But both technologists and politicians fear the internet remains in imminent danger of new controls imposed by various countries, and some said the rift that only widened during the 12-day ITU conference in Dubai could wind up hastening the end of the internet as we know it.
"If the international community can’t agree on what is actually quite a simple text on telecommunications, then there is a risk that the consensus that has mostly held today around internet governance within (web-address overseer) ICANN and the multi-stakeholder model just falls apart over time," a European delegate told Reuters. "Some countries clearly think it is time to rethink that whole system, and the fights over that could prove irresolvable."
An increasing number of countries are alarmed about internet-based warfare, international cybercrime or internal dissidents’ use of so-called "over-the-top" services such as Twitter and Facebook that are outside the control of domestic telecommunications authorities. Many hoped the ITU would prove the right forum to set standards or at least exchange views on how to handle their problems.
But the US refusal to sign the treaty even after all mention of the internet had been relegated to a side resolution may have convinced other countries that they have to go it alone, delegates said.
"This could lead to a balkanisation of the internet, because each country will have its own view on how to deal with over-the-top players and will regulate the internet in a different way," said another European delegate, who would speak only on condition anonymity.
Without US and European co-operation, "maybe in the future we could come to a fragmented internet", said Andrey Mukhanov, international chief at Russia’s ministry of telecom and mass communications.
Spurred on by search giant Google and others, the Americans took a hard line against an alliance of countries that wanted the right to know more about the routing of internet traffic or identities of web users, including Russia, and developing countries that wanted content providers to pay at least some of the costs of transmission.
The West was able to rally more countries against the ITU having any internet role than agency officials had expected, leaving just 89 of 144 attending nations willing to sign the treaty immediately. They also endorse a nonbinding resolution that the ITU should play a future role guiding internet standards, along with private industry and national governments.
Some delegates charged that the Americans had planned on rejecting any treaty and so were negotiating under false pretenses. "The US had a plan to try and water down as much of the treaty as it could and then not sign," the second European said.
Other allied delegates and a US spokesman hotly disputed the claim. "The US was consistent and unwavering in its positions," he said. "In the end — and only in the end — was it apparent that the proposed treaty would not meet that standard."
But the suspicion underscores the unease greeting the US on the issue. Some in Russia, China and other nations suspect the US of using the internet to sow discontent and launch spying and military attacks.
For many technology companies, and for activists who are helping dissidents, the worst-case scenario now would be a split in the structural underpinnings of the internet. In theory, the electronic packets that make up an e-mail or web session could be intercepted and monitored near their origin, or traffic could be subjected to massive firewalls along national boundaries, as is the case in China.
Most technologists view the former scenario as unlikely, at least for many years. The existing internet protocol was too deeply entrenched, said Milton Mueller, a Syracuse University professor who studies Net governance.
"People who want to ‘secede’ from that global connectivity will have to introduce costly technical exceptions to do so," he said.
A more immediate prospect is stricter national regulations requiring internet service providers and others to help monitor, report and censor content, a trend that has already accelerated since the Arab Spring revolts.
Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of Harvard University’s Berkman Centre for Internet Society, also predicted more fragmentation at the application level, with countries like China encouraging controllable homegrown alternatives to the likes of Facebook and Twitter.
Prof Zittrain, Prof Mueller and other experts said fans of the open internet had much work to do in Dubai’s wake.
They said government and industry officials should not only preach the merits of the existing system, in which various industry-led nonprofit groups organise the core internet protocols and procedures, but strive to articulate a better way forward.
"The position we’re in now isn’t tenable," said James Lewis, a cybersecurity adviser to the White House based at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. "For us to say, ‘No, it’s got be an ad hoc arrangement of nongovernmental entities and a nonprofit corporation … maybe we could get away with that 10 years ago, but it’s going to be increasingly hard."
Mr Lewis said the US needed to concede a greater role for national sovereignty and the United Nations, while Prof Mueller said the goal should be a "more globalised, transnational notion of communications governance" that would take decades to achieve.
In the meantime, activists concerned about new regulation could assist by spreading virtual private network technology, which could circumvent national controls, Prof Zittrain said.
Backup hosting and distribution could also be key, he said. "We can devise systems for keeping content up amidst filtering or denial-of-service attacks, so that a platform like Twitter can be a genuine choice for someone in China."