Who will control the Internet? (Who will pay for it?)

Representatives of more than 190 governments will gather in Dubai next week to discuss the future of today's largely free and open Internet. Will censorship threaten progress?

And you thought SOPA and PIPA were bad.

Representatives of more than 190 governments, telecommunications companies and Internet groups will gather in Dubai next week for the 12-day World Conference on International Telecommunications, or WCIT-12 for short.

At stake: the future of the largely free and open Internet we enjoy today.

The last time this group assembled was 1988, when the consumer Internet was nascent at best. Today, the Internet is the backbone for economies, connected technologies of all kinds and free speech. The many stakeholders that will be in attendance are scheduled to discuss the future of Internet services, specifically around how they are paid for. (Who will pay to maintain the Internet as traffic continues to surge? What about razor-thin margins in Europe? And what of network neutrality, when many U.S. companies enjoy monopolies in their markets?)

But the elephant in the room is the potential for one major player -- Russia, some suggest -- to insist on changing the fundamental oversight of the Internet, thus possibly threatening its unfettered, decentralized, apolitical growth with censorship and regulation.

Obviously, that's a big problem for a future that involves an "Internet of Things," in which devices of all kinds are smart and connected. That's also a problem for the 4.5 billion people who do not yet have access to it.

Eric Pfanner cites a Russian proposal in the New York Times:

“Member states,” Russia proposed, “shall have equal rights to manage the Internet, including in regard to the allotment, assignment and reclamation of Internet numbering, naming, addressing and identification resources.”

It's no different than China or Iran, both of whom limit Internet access in their countries.

Fundamentally, the Internet is the world's first global infrastructure problem, no different than a city's public transit system or a nation's network of highways: who will pay to maintain -- and legislate that payment -- a common good when there's no global system of governance? A fascinating and complex challenge for which I'm not sure we yet have an answer.

Map: The global Internet, 2012. (TeleGeography)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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