Communications Treaty Hung Up on Internet Issue

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PARIS -- Nearly a week into a global conference to draft a treaty on the future of international telecommunications, delegates remain divided on a fundamental question: Should the Internet feature in the discussions?

The United States says no, arguing that including it in an intergovernmental agreement could result in regulations that would hamper its development, which has been led by the private sector.

To try to win this point early in the proceedings, the U.S. delegation has pushed a proposal to restrict the application of the treaty to traditional telecommunications operators, excluding Internet companies, as well as private and government networks.

So far, however, the United States has been rebuffed.

Terry Kramer, the head of the U.S. delegation, said the proposal, co-sponsored by Canada, had generated support from American allies in Europe, Latin America and the Asia-Pacific region. Other countries, including Russia and some African and Middle Eastern nations, have apparently resisted, favoring a broader definition of telecommunications that could include the Internet.

"Fundamentally, to us, this conference should not be about the Internet sector," Mr. Kramer said by telephone from Dubai, where the meeting is taking place under the auspices of the International Telecommunication Union. "There are some pretty big differences of opinion on this."

Russia, as expected, has introduced a proposal to shift oversight over the Internet, including the address system, to an international body, contending that the United States wields too much influence over this. The address function is currently handled by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a private body that operates under a U.S. government contract.

"We fundamentally disagree with that," Mr. Kramer said, referring to the Russian idea. "Once governments are in that role, they are in position to decide how the Internet operates, what kind of information flows there, et cetera."

Campaigners against restrictions on the Internet have also expressed concerns about proposals to beef up cybersecurity and to crack down on spam -- fearing that this could be used as a pretext for censorship -- as well as about a proposed technical standard for "deep packet inspection." This refers to technology that can be used to examine the content of traffic that passes through telecommunications networks.

It is unclear which, if any, of these initiatives might make it into the final treaty. The talks are set to continue through next week, and Mr. Kramer has pledged to block any proposals that would threaten the integrity of the Internet. The telecommunication union says proposals will be adopted only if they meet with widespread support at the conference, whose goal is to update regulations that date to 1988.

"Open Internet" groups have criticized the process as lacking transparency. While some meetings are going on behind closed doors, the union moved to provide webcasts of the plenary sessions, in which delegates from more than 190 countries are debating the proposals.

On Wednesday, however, access to the webcasts and other material on the union's Web site was briefly blocked; the group said hackers appeared to have been responsible.

"Some delegates were frustrated at being unable to access some of the online working documents that were being considered by the meeting," the union said in a statement. "However, a spirit of camaraderie prevailed, with those who had access to up-to-date online versions of the texts willingly sharing with other delegates in order to keep discussions moving forward."

So far, fears that the conference could turn raucous have not come to pass.

"The world is having a conversation," said Sally Shipman Wentworth, senior manager of public policy at the Internet Society, whose members include Internet companies, governance groups and others. "The meeting rooms are full, and everyone wants to have a chance to be heard. It's been pretty collegial so far."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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