Next week, out of sight of all but the most obsessive geeks, the future of the internet will be determined. Any drama, however, will be hard to discern. Men in suits will gather in Dubai to pore over interminable clause provisions, talking in acronyms and jargon.

Yet what happens at the World Conference on International Communications will potentially affect every citizen and every business – those who go online to network, to buy, to sell and to express themselves.

The issue at stake is will the internet continue to be run by a series of semi-formal groups that meet to assign domain names and to debate free expression, or will it be handed over to governments, most of which have pushed hard to assert control over cyberspace?

The dreams of the early “cyber utopians” of a brave new world of unrestricted information flows and, by extension, a concerted challenge to old power structures, are in danger of fading away.

Governments are citing threats to order and decency as justification for reining in freedom of expression and watching over populations. Online surveillance has become far more sophisticated than old dictatorships, with their tape recorders and headphones, could ever achieve.

Western governments are joining in, providing cover inadvertently for others. In the UK, the planned Communications Data bill, which would enshrine in law the holding of all data of all citizens, will be an encouraging sign for the likes of Vladimir Putin and the leaders of the Chinese Communist party.

The Russians do not hide their intent. The filtering law that came into effect on November 1 allows the authorities to close down sites that not only promote material that is unambiguously harmful, such as child pornography, but includes sites and content that could be construed as extremist. For that, read anything the Kremlin would rather people do not see.

It is the Russians who have been taking the lead in the run-up to the Dubai conference. But they are not alone. The likes of Iran, China and Uzbekistan are among those proposing to hand over internet governance to the UN’s International Telecommunications Union. The ITU has regulated radio spectrum and telecoms for 150 years, although it prefers not to advertise its activities.

Most of the preparations for the Dubai conference have been shrouded in secrecy, and it is largely through, a whistleblowing website, that its plans have to come to light. Centre stage is a plan to assert national control over all internet activity that crosses national borders and to assign internet names and addresses. Since the leak, the language has been toned down fractionally, but the intent remains the same: to give governments power over everything that their citizens do and say online.

Pretty much for the first time since the advent of the internet, its users have been shut out from the Dubai process. Until now, internet governance has resided with the “netizens” of the Internet Governance Forum.

Its most recent annual conference took place less than a month ago, in the unlikely setting of Baku. Freedom of speech and Azerbaijan are not natural bedfellows. Bloggers are beaten up and hauled off to jail for criticising the government. Yet for a week, engineers, academics, private sector and civil society groups rubbed shoulders with ministers from around the world and officials from international institutions. What is so remarkable about the IGF, and discomforting for authoritarians, is that the big issues are debated again and again, very publicly. It can be frustrating but it is the best system yet devised. It epitomises the free-flowing internet as it was conceived.

Few deny that the internet governance needs to adapt. Its discourse needs to be less American, more internationalist so as to reflect the shifting power balance between north and south. The question is not which countries have jurisdiction over the internet, but to make sure that citizens from all regions, particularly developing nations, are properly represented. Even if they don’t make the breakthrough they seek in Dubai, the authoritarians will come back for more in 2013. If they succeed, internet restrictions will soon become the norm and users around the world will have to get used to governments watching them.

The writer is a free expression campaigner and an adviser to Google

Get alerts on UK when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article