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ITU Plenipot 2014: How the U.S. plans to avoid a U.N. vote on the future of the Internet

Washington Post: The latest battle over who should run the Internet will be waged in the South Korean port city of Busan over the next three weeks. For U.S. officials headed to the  United Nation’s International Telecommunication Union’s Plenipotentiary Conference, the goal is simple: prevent a vote.

In short, the State Department’s approach is this: Convince the representatives of the other 192 member countries attending the conference that the 150-year-old U.N. technical body is the wrong forum for existential questions about how the Internet should work. That could buy time to improve the current  “multi-stakeholder” model that has been used to govern the Internet’s operations for years, and make it better able to handle the knottiest questions, from e-mail spam to government-conducted digital surveillance.

“It is our hope that there will not be votes,” said the U.S.’ delegation’s leader, Ambassador Daniel Sepulveda, who previewed the strategy at a roundtable at the Foreign Press Club in Washington, D.C., last week.

The debate on the fate of the Internet is setting up a fascinating diplomatic dance, made thornier for U.S. officials by lingering foreign suspicion of U.S. surveillance efforts in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations.

Taking a step back, U.S. officials see the potential wrangling in Busan as part of the desire of some governments, Russia and China chief among them, to gain greater latitude to block content, turn off the Internet and otherwise exercise more control over the online world.

“Countries want to be able to legitimize their own decisions about censorship,” Under Secretary of State Catherine Novelli said at the roundtable, “and that’s why these proposals are put forward.”

But others argue that revelations about digital surveillance programs at U.S. intelligence agencies, including on foreign governments, prove that the U.S. is abusing its long-time role as semi-official steward of the Internet.

Ambassador Daniel Sepulveda, deputy assistant secretary of state and U.S. coordinator for international communications and information policy (The Center for Strategic and International Studies)

That sets up an interesting subtext in Busan. What the State Department is attempting is tricky. They’ll argue that the United States does not dominate the multi-stakeholder system, in which engineers, academics, civil society and government representatives — what Sepulveda describes as “anyone who cares” about the Internet — all have a voice. But that case is arguably weakened by the fact that the United States is making it the loudest.

And so, the U.S. officials’ best bet, State Department officials say, is to win hearts and minds before any formal voting can take place. Their approach is two-fold. First, prove to other countries that the California-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, is capable of ably handling what’s known as naming and numbering — the nuts and bolts of Web site names and the numerical addressing system that powers the Internet. And second, to convince other countries that the ITU is the wrong forum for adjudicating privacy and related concerns.

Sepulveda distilled the pitch for addressing proposals that “try to leverage” the Snowden disclosures: “This is a gathering of communications ministers whose focus is connectivity to communications, not on how states or individuals can use those communications.”

That said, making the delegation’s efforts more difficult is that proposals that could weaken ICANN’s position will likely be cloaked in jargon and nuance. Said Under Secretary Novelli: “It’s not that there’s just one proposal saying, ‘Okay, let’s abandon the multi-stakeholder system and put it all on the ITU.’ ”

And so, in South Korea, the U.S. delegation is on the lookout for piecemeal propositions that quietly shift responsibilities from the multi-stakeholder model to the ITU. Those might be changes to technical definitions that push certain technologies under the United Nations’ umbrella.

Complicating matters further is that the rest of the world isn’t standing still while the U.S. team is in Busan. The head of ICANN, Fadi Chehadé, has been scampering around the globe in a bid to gain support for a proposal to create a global body to govern Internet content, including privacy and spam, while ensuring that the U.S. doesn’t have an unduly dominant role in the process.

Throw into the mix the potential for more disclosures about government surveillance programs, and the State Department’s efforts become even more complex. Asked at the roundtable about both the revelations about NSA operations and the U.S. response to them, Novelli said simply, “we are where we are at this point.”

That’s what we’ll see playing out over the next three weeks, under the cover of a boring old technical meeting taking place in South Korea.

By Washington Post : Nancy Scola is a reporter who covers the intersections of technology and public policy, politics, and governance.