LONDON Internet activists will this week make an 11th-hour attempt to stop governments seizing more control of the Web that has fueled Arab revolutions, enabled mass leaks of U.S. diplomatic cables and allowed online piracy to thrive.
The Internet Governance Forum that begins in Nairobi on Tuesday brings together companies, non-profit groups, academics, engineers, government representatives and ordinary citizens.
They hope to show they are best placed to write the rules of the road ahead for the World Wide Web, an increasingly important driver of economic growth in a world on the brink of recession.
In a study published this year, consultancy McKinsey found the Internet accounted for 21 percent of GDP growth in mature countries, and that almost $8 trillion changes hands through e-commerce each year.
"Stronger influence of governments seems inevitable. The Internet has simply become too important for them to ignore it. They prefer a top-down approach," Markus Kummer of the Internet Society, which campaigns for the open Internet, told a recent London seminar.
Groups like the Internet Society fear the creeping use by governments of tools like "three strikes and you're out" laws to cut off Internet access from citizens caught breaking copyright rules, already passed by France and being considered in several other European countries.
Some countries have tried more radical measures, like Egypt cutting itself off from the Internet during the Arab Spring to stop flash protests being coordinated on websites like Twitter.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who applauded the Arab Spring, hosted the e-G8 in Paris this year, a conference of political leaders and Internet company bosses at which he put the case for more government regulation while paying lip service to an inclusive approach to governing the Internet.
"It was very exclusionary. For women and the global South there was virtually no consultation. It was a hand-picked group of white, male billionaires," Internet lawyer and consumer advocate Jeremy Malcolm told Reuters.
"The IGF is really the last best hope for this process. If it fails, what we're going to get is India, Brazil, South Africa, China, Kazakhstan, Russia and so on putting forward the idea that we need an intergovernmental process."
The Internet's potential to raise living standards is under-exploited in the developing world where just 21 percent of the population have access, compared with 69 percent in the developed world.
Its role as a catalyst for development will be a key theme of the IGF, a United Nations-sponsored event where speakers will include World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee and EU digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes.
If it is to succeed in keeping governments at arm's length, the IGF will also have to show it is serious about cybersecurity
which companies now view as a bigger threat than traditional crime, natural disasters and terrorism.
The forum comes at a time of technical upheaval for the Internet where top-level domains such as .com or .org are about to be liberalized, enabling companies and communities to buy, create, name and run their own domains.
Web addresses in languages like Arabic and Russian have also recently been made possible, a move expected to transform the Internet and give more power to non-English speakers.
"The technology continuing to change is a given that we have to accept," said Jeff Brueggeman, who runs public policy for U.S. telecoms operator AT&T and will attend the IGF. "The idea is always to be looking ahead at the next issue."
(Editing by Robert Woodward)