Most countries at a conference on telecommunications oversight have agreed that a United Nations agency should play an "active" but not dominant role in internet governance as they struggled to reach a worldwide compromise.
As a marathon session at the UN's World Conference on International Telecommunications concluded at about 1.30am local time in Dubai (10.30 am NZT), the chairman asked for a "feel of the room" and then noted that the nonbinding resolution had majority support, while denying it was a vote.
The United States has fought during the 12-day conference ending Friday to keep the International Telecommunication Union's mandate from extending to the internet. Western diplomats and technologists say that a greater ITU role could lead to increased censorship and a dramatic reduction in anonymity.
But ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Tour pleaded that the document was part of a balance that gave Western countries most of what they wanted in the more critical binding ITU treaty.
"If we were to eliminate this, that was a compromise that will come (back) on the table," Tour warned the gathering ahead of the show of support. ITU officials are striving to forge consensus and avoid formal votes, and delegates were unsure after the proceeding whether the resolution had been adopted.
Several in attendance said they expected the conference to take up both the resolution and the treaty itself again on Thursday after factions failed to agree on treaty revisions. Most of the language about internet control was excised from the proposed revisions in the compromise promoted by Tour.
The biggest remaining sticking point is whether countries should have the right to control "addressing," which some said would include internet addressing, which is currently managed by the US-based non-profit organization ICANN, the internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.
The Americans and Europeans said on Wednesday that was unacceptable, while the opposing camp said that clause was the only remaining element of what they had pushed for.
US Ambassador Terry Kramer tweeted that work would continue around the clock, but added: "The US remains committed to keeping the internet out of the ITRs (treaty)."
That drew expressions of exasperation from some other countries. "The compromise seems to be falling apart right in front of our eyes," a Russian delegate told the conference.
Russia, along with China, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and some other countries, on Tuesday resubmitted a joint proposal calling for a massive extension of state supervision of the Net, but that has been set aside as delegates debate the compromise texts.
The resolution that won majority support in the waning hours of the day says that the ITU's leadership should "continue to take the necessary steps for ITU to play an active and constructive role in the multi-stakeholder model of the internet."
It then cited a description of that model that was produced at another summit in 2005, which held that "policy authority for internet-related public policy issues is the sovereign right of States," though the private sector, civil groups and international groups also have important roles.
It was unclear how severe the breakdown in the compromise had become. A member of the US delegation declined to speak after the informal vote, saying the talks were "much too sensitive at the moment."
Some non-profit civil and industry groups, which have played a large role in steering the development of the internet, said they shared the US government's concern about any extension of the UN role and about a conference procedure that remained opaque even to some participants.
"Rushing an important and acknowledgedly contentious proposal through a confusing vote-that's-not-a-vote is not a legitimate process," said Emma Llanso of the Center for Democracy & Technology, a Washington group funded by charitable foundations and technology companies including Microsoft, Facebook and Google.
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