Who controls the Internet? Should anyone? Who decides?
These concerns – practical to many, philosophical to some and existential to others – have taken centre stage amid high-level meetings in Dubai that have sparked furious debate over whether, and to what extent, regulation of the Internet should come under the auspices of the United Nations.
Now, many are concerned that faceless bureaucrats at the UN could have the power to turn off the Internet. Although it's been officially denied that this is desirable or even possible, the torrent of criticism continued to build as the talks began this week.
The reaction seems to have left the International Telecommunications Union, the UN-affiliated body meeting through next week, somewhat befuddled. They have tried to be more open about the talks, including streaming the meetings and posting more information on their site. But the attempt at transparency was falling embarrassingly short Wednesday as their site went down for long periods.
Leaders of the ITU insist that they are focused on fairly dry topics such as Internet access in poor countries, IP numbering, distribution of .com addresses, spam filtering and whether websites should pay mobile providers who carry their content. But the devil, as always, will be in the details.
"It's about definitions," Dominique Lazanski, a digital strategy and policy consultant with the British delegation, told PC Pro. "Being able to manage spam doesn't just mean spam – it could potentially mean all content. It's important to make a difference between what's being said and what's being implied. What one country might assume is one thing, another country thinks is another."
And efforts by Russia and China to exert more control over the Internet, perhaps through the UN, reportedly were brought to the table as well as delegates negotiating an updated version of the International Telecommunications Regulations.
In a typical reaction, U.S. author Arthur Herman warned before the talks began that "the man in charge of the Web will be a Soviet-trained apparatchik from Cold War days."
As a result, some are viewing an obscure UN body that hasn't updated the ITRs in 24 years as some sort of villain – akin to The Simpsons character Montgomery Burns, who once revealed his plan to block out the sun.
ITU head Hamadoun Touré, a Malian who studied in Moscow and is the apparent target of Mr. Herman's attack, said on the first day that the goal of the meetings was very different from the picture painted by critics. He insisted that the conference cannot give ITU regulatory power, lamenting that "despite repeating this many times, it seems that the message is not getting through."
And he suggested that discussions about Internet freedom were missing a more fundamental point.
"Most people in the world cannot even access the Internet and avail of all its benefits and opportunities," he told delegates Monday. "It is out of reach, infrastructurally, economically, culturally and linguistically. The brutal truth is that the Internet remains largely a rich world privilege. ITU wants to change that."
But it has been an uphill battle against the populist likes of Google, whose so-called Chief Internet Evangelist has been whipping up international support.
"Openness is why the Internet creates so much value today," Vint Cerf argued. "Because it is borderless and belongs to everyone, it has brought unprecedented freedoms to billions of people worldwide: the freedom to create and innovate, to organize and influence, to speak and be heard."
Although there are those who argue that the debate over an unfettered Internet is decades out of date, there can be little doubt that the scrutiny forced by the campaign has had an impact.
"The dirty truth is that the very sunlight that the U.S. government and Google, among others, shone on the process has removed most of the big problems before [the conference] even started," Kieren McCarthy wrote at .nxt, a site devoted to Internet policy and governance.