Talks over global telecommunications treaty falter

Western nations tried to prevent Internet governance

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- In a moment of high drama at the end of nearly two weeks of talks on an international telecommunications treaty, the United States rejected a proposal negotiated by more than 190 countries Thursday after delegates were unable to resolve an impasse over the Internet.

"It is with a heavy heart that I have to announce that the United States must communicate that it is unable to sign the agreement in its current form," Terry Kramer, head of the U.S. delegation, announced moments after a final draft had been approved by a majority of nations.

The U.S. announcement was seconded by Canada and several European countries after talks that had often pitted Western governments against developing nations. The talks were held under the auspices of the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency.

The acrimonious end to the talks does not mean international telephone calls or cross-border Internet traffic will suddenly be cut off. Countries that approved the final document could implement it on their own, with holdouts such as the United States putting separate agreements in place.

The United States has consistently maintained that the Internet should not be mentioned in the treaty, which deals with technical matters such as connecting international phone calls, because doing so could lead to curbs on free speech and replace the existing, bottom-up form of Internet oversight with a government-led model.

"We cannot support a treaty that is not supportive of the multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance," Mr. Kramer said. His announcement came moments after the telecommunication union announced that a final version of the text had been adopted.

A bloc of countries led by Russia and including China and the host nation, the United Arab Emirates, argued throughout the negotiations that the Internet should be within the scope of the talks because Internet traffic travels through telecommunications networks.

The goal of the talks, led by Mohamed Nasser al-Ghanim, director-general of the Telecommunication Regulation Authority of the United Arab Emirates, was to revise a document that was last updated in 1988, when the Internet was in its early stages of development.

The acrimonious end to the proceedings reflected the rising importance of telecommunications and the Internet, with communications, commerce and even warfare increasingly occurring over digital networks. The East-West and North-South divisions harked back to the Cold War, though even that conflict did not stop the telecommunications union from reaching previous pacts.

Agreement was never going to be easy, but as with most U.N. agencies, the telecommunication union tries to operate by consensus, resorting to majority vote only when this fails.

The U.S. delegation was apparently angered by developments in the early hours of Wednesday morning, when Russia and its allies succeeded in winning, by a mere show of hands, approval of a resolution that mentions the Internet. The show of hands followed an attempt by Mr. Ghanim to gauge, as he put it, "the temperature of the room."

The United States and its supporters interpreted the wording as supporting a shift in the governance of the Internet to bring it under the regulatory framework of the telecommunication union. Currently, the Internet is overseen by a loose grouping of organizations, mostly in the private sector, rather than by governments. But at least one of these organizations, the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers, operates under a contract from the U.S. government.

A resolution is not officially part of the treaty wording, and Russia and its allies had previously attempted to include a similar clause in the actual treaty. But under a compromise, it agreed this week to withdraw that proposal and settle for a resolution instead. Even that, however, was insufficient to address the concerns of the United States and its supporters. The resolution in question "invites member states to elaborate on their respective position on international Internet-related technical, development and public policy issues within the mandate of the ITU at various ITU fora."

Delegations were also divided over issues including cybersecurity, fighting spam and proposals that telecommunications firms should receive payment for carrying Internet traffic.

Another thorny issue was whether the treaty should include a reference to human rights in its preamble. Several European nations, supported by the United States, Tunisia, Kenya and others, managed to insert such language into the proposal, arguing that "nondiscriminatory access" to telecommunications was an important free-speech issue. But China, Saudi Arabia and other countries consistently opposed this.

Late Thursday, a new dispute flared over a proposal by African nations to add a guarantee that nations, not just individuals, should have access to "international telecommunications services." This was adopted in a majority vote, over the objections of the United States and many European nations.

The U.S. position on many issues has been supported by intense lobbying from Internet firms such as Google and groups that campaign against restrictions on the Web, including the Internet Society..

The telecommunication union has consistently maintained that it has no interest in overseeing the Internet. The Russian delegation, too, insisted that it had no intention of usurping key Internet governance functions.

"The Americans are the fathers and mothers of the Internet, and we have to appreciate that," said Andrei V. Krutskikh, a Russian Foreign Ministry official. "But words like 'Internet' and 'security' should not be treated like curse words. They have been treated like curse words by some delegations at this conference."

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