Russia is engaged in a brazen but little noticed effort to set new rules for cyberspace — even as it flouts the existing ones. Last week, in an encouraging step, a United Nations telecommunications body pushed back.

Russia had asked the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to have the group’s 193 member states “discuss the status of global governance system for … Internet domain names, addresses, and critical Internet infrastructure.” In a curt statement Thursday, the ITU said simply that it had “noted the contribution” of Russia. In other words, thanks but no thanks.

One European delegate to the conference said the opaque official language meant that no further action would be taken. He noted that the Russians tried again by attaching a similar proposal to an ITU measure involving protection of children online, but it was also rejected. The ITU operates by consensus, so opposition from the United States and key European and Asian allies was enough to scuttle the Russian moves.

This seemingly obscure bureaucratic debate matters because it’s a rare moment when an international body rebuffs Russia’s growing ambition to steer the Internet. Russia has tried to set the rules for what it calls “information space” — either by writing new protocols or hacking the ones that exist. This time it didn’t work.

The Internet may indeed need new informal rules of the road, developed by the world’s tech companies, that make it more robust and resistant to hackers. But the United States and other democracies have a huge stake in maintaining the existing free and resilient structure, largely without government dictates, which in a few decades has transformed global business and culture. Internet pioneers fear that Russia and other autocratic governments will use worries about online security to impose policies that restrict freedom and democracy.

Governance of the Internet operates under an improbable but wildly successful private consortium known as ICANN, which stands for Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. It was founded in 1998 to privately manage the system of domain names and addresses that had been created by the Defense Department’s ARPANET messaging system.

ICANN has been a Russian target for years. The consortium coordinated the system under a Commerce Department contract until 2016, when it became private. It’s now a crowdsourced collection of software engineers and other technicians from around the world; its legitimacy stems from transparency and lack of affiliation with any government.

The Russian campaign against ICANN and other existing governance measures is outlined in a Jan. 19 report by the group. It notes a dozen statements by senior Russian officials over the past 18 months pressing Moscow‘s argument for a new U.N. treaty that would create new “rules of the road” for the Internet that would protect against what President Vladimir Putin warned in a September 2020 address were threats from “various radicals and extremists.”

Moscow’s most explicit claim that the current ICANN-led governance system favors the United States came in an Aug. 12 statement from former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev: “At this time the U.S. fully controls the Domain Name System used to resolve IP-addresses. That’s how it happened historically, but simply and bluntly put, it shouldn’t be this way.”

Russia has refused to sign the 2001 Budapest Convention on Cybercrime, which went into force in 2004, arguing that its provisions are too intrusive. Since at least 2017, Russia has pressed instead for a new U.N. treaty that would govern cyberspace.

A year ago, with little public notice, Russia won backing from the U.N. General Assembly to begin drafting the new cyberspace pact. The issue got little high-level attention during the Trump administration, but that may be changing. President Biden raised U.S. concerns about Russian hacking and Internet manipulations last week during a call with Putin, the White House said.

It’s a grotesque irony that Russia — which is among the world’s leading saboteurs of open dialogue on the Internet — is promoting itself as the new guardian of responsible Internet security. Fortunately, the telecommunications experts gathered at last week’s ITU meeting saw through the ruse.

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