By Eliza Krigman | 11/27/12 5:29 AM EST

Policymakers, industry and the media are focusing on upcoming telecom treaty talks in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, as the moment where Internet regulation could be transformed for the worse.

 

But the talks are just one battle in a much longer war.

 

Member countries of the International Telecommunication Union, a branch of the U.N., will gather in the emirate next month to update a 24-year-old treaty on international telecommunication regulations. U.S. officials are concerned that other countries will attempt to give the ITU more power to regulate the Internet. And if governments intervene in Web governance, experts say, it will undermine the bottom-up management process that has allowed the Internet to flourish.

 

Even if U.S. regulators successfully fight off new regulations in Dubai, though, their work isn’t finished.

 

“The United Nations is in this for the long run,” said Steve DelBianco, executive director of NetChoice, an industry group promoting choice and commerce on the Web.  “And they can afford to be patient and gradually acquire more power until they alone manage the Internet’s critical resources.”

 

Other experts agree.

 

“Incrementalism is the problem,” said Fiona Alexander, a top NTIA official on the issue. “There is always another meeting and another opportunity to push a small change.” Alexander warns that what can appear to be innocuous alterations to the language of international treaties or doctrines can mean sweeping changes for the communications industry.

 

In the next few years alone, other countries will have several more opportunities to advance pro-regulatory agendas on the international stage.

 

Preparations are already under way for the World Telecom Policy Forum, scheduled to take place in Geneva next May. The main purpose of that meeting, also coordinated by the ITU, is to “look at international Internet-related public policy matters,” according to the organization’s website.

 

Then, in 2014, the ITU has two major events: a development conference and a plenipotentiary conference. The former, as its name suggests, focuses on issues of importance to the developing world, while the latter is a broader meeting where member states are to decide the appropriate regulatory role for the ITU.

 

In 2015, there will be a formal review of earlier work done by the World Summit on the Information Society back in 2005. The WSIS, orchestrated by the U.N., created the Internet Governance Forum and principles, such as “enhanced cooperation,” that invited governments to become more engaged in existing multi-stakeholder organizations, such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

 

All of those meetings give other countries — such as China and Russia — that are pushing for greater state control over the Internet other opportunities to do so. Countries interested in greater ITU regulation “don’t care” where that agenda is advanced, said Danielle Coffey, a government affairs executive at TIA. The World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai “just happens to be the first vehicle,” Coffey said.

 

“You can kill a document,” Coffey said, “but you can’t kill an idea.”

 

An ITU official dismissed the idea that it’s even possible for the U.N. to meddle with the Internet in the way that U.S. officials have been describing.

 

Much of the discussion about a power grab by the U.N. “is based on ignorance about how the Internet operates,” Gary Fowlie, head of the ITU Liaison Office to the U.N., said at a recent event that focused on the Dubai talks.

 

“The idea that the ITU was using this as veiled threat for the U.N. to take over the Internet” is a myth, Fowlie said.

 

But major U.S. tech firms are concerned. Google has launched a campaign to mobilize opposition to greater ITU control, declaring, “The ITU is the wrong place to make decisions about the future of the Internet.”

 

And some observers are worried that U.S. policymakers won’t keep a close eye on the issue after the Dubai talks end.

 

“It’s unclear to me once we get back from WCIT,” Alexander said,  “whether it will have the same level of attention” from those who don’t work very closely on these issues.

Lawmakers play a largely symbolic role in this matter, but negotiators say support from lawmakers here is essential to help make the U.S. case abroad.

 

Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.), a leading congressional opponent of increased international Internet regulation, was defeated in her reelection bid. Bono Mack spearheaded a House resolution that championed the current, multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) backed a companion measure in the Senate.

 

Rubio claims to be in the fight for the duration.

 

Sen. Rubio “is fully aware the issue will continue after Dubai,” Alex Conant, a Rubio spokesman, told POLITICO in an email.

 

“We will continue to be an advocate for an Internet free from government regulation, and for multi-stakeholder governance,” Conant said. “Sen. Rubio knows that enemies of freedom like Russia and China will continue to use these conferences as opportunities to gain greater control over the Internet and to legitimize their censorship activities.”