A debate about governance of the global Internet is expected to dominate a 12-day conference of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) that begins December 3 in Dubai.
Hamadoun Toure, secretary-general of the UN agency, says the Dubai conference aims to update a binding global treaty on how telecoms companies interact across borders.
"The world has a chance to set us on the path toward a global knowledge society," he said. "Over 1,500 delegates from around the world -- including representatives from national governments, industry experts, and civil society advocates -- will meet at the Dubai World Trade Center to discuss and debate a new set of international telecommunication regulations."
Some countries want to limit the global regulatory powers of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the company licensed by the U.S. Department of Commerce to coordinate technical aspects of the Internet, like the Domain Name System and Internet Protocol addresses.
Those countries are expected to push for the ITU to take over Internet governance. They include governments that want to tax firms like Google for sending data into their territory, as well as authoritarian regimes that want more control over the Internet.
Leaked Russian draft proposals call for the sovereign right "to regulate the national Internet segment."
A draft proposal from 17 Arab countries calls for technical changes that could endanger the online anonymity of political dissidents.
On the other side of the debate is the United States, the European Union, Canada, and firms like Google that oppose new Internet restrictions.
Toure rejects critics who say the ITU's historic role coordinating the world's telephone systems does not make it qualified to govern the Internet.
Alan Woodward, a University of Surrey cybersecurity professor, says the debate is crucial for maintaining an open and globally connected Internet.
"By governance, we don't mean who sets the laws," said Woodward. "It's all about who sets the standards -- who decides on things like the addresses and naming conventions."
He added: "Some of that may not sound particularly important. But one of the reasons the Internet actually works on a global basis is there is only one group at the moment that does all of that -- basically ICANN. Were it to be split up into different countries who did their own thing, you'd end up with the Internet effectively fragmenting."
Google's chief Internet promoter, Vint Cerf, a former ICANN chairman and former Google vice president, warns that international telecommunications regulations could be altered at the Dubai conference in ways that directly impact on the way the Internet continues to function and evolve.
"The Internet is under attack in many different ways," Cerf said. "Many countries see it as a threat -- particularly those countries that are concerned about open expression. Over 40 countries in the world now censor some aspect or another of the Internet."
Cerf says the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and its members should be able to access the activities at the Dubai meetings. He has called for "openness and transparency" in the Dubai debates.
Internet freedom advocates say they fear the debates will be closed to all but government representatives and that the ITU will merely present its conclusions at the end of the conference without input from the private sector, technical experts, or civil society.
With reporting by Reuters and dpa