Canada, the United States and a number of other countries have hung up on a global telecom summit.
The countries said Thursday they won’t sign new regulations agreed to at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai because of concern one part could be used to undermine an open Internet.
“With many like-minded countries, Canada endeavoured to reach consensus on new International Telecommunication Union (ITU) regulations that recognized advances in telecommunications while maintaining an open, accessible Internet,” Industry Minister Christian Paradis said in a statement Thursday.
“The final treaty text tabled in Dubai included provisions that threaten these freedoms and, as a result, Canada and many other nations were unable to sign on to these new regulations.”
Asked for details, Paradis’ office couldn’t point to specific provisions in the treaty that Canada objects to. Instead it sent a statement saying Canada did not sign on to the final text “because it contains provisions that would expand the mandate of the ITU into the realm of internet governance and content, and potentially lead towards greater state oversight of the Internet.
“Several ITU member states were attempting to extend the scope of the ITRs to include provisions related to Internet governance such as operational structure, content and cybersecurity. These provisions were in conflict with Canada’s support for the private sector-led, multi-stakeholder governance model for the Internet – a model that has provided so many benefits to Canadians.”
U.S. Ambassador Terry Kramer told the conference that “we candidly cannot support an ITU treaty that is inconsistent with a multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance. As the ITU has stated, this conference was never meant to focus on Internet issues; however, today we are in a situation where we still have text and resolutions that cover issues on spam and also provisions on Internet governance.”
In a later call with reporters
Kramer said the U.S. objected to four things in the treaty: a reference to “operating agencies,” which it took to include Internet service providers, governments and private network operators; a reference to “unsolicited bulk electronic communications,”, which it took to include spam. The U.S. fears this could lead to justifying regulation of political speech; “vague committments” that impact network security, which the U.S. feels don’t belong in international regulations; and parts that could be interpreted as leading to nations controlling the Internet.
The treaty isn’t binding on the countries that do sign it, and within their borders nations can still control communications as they see fit. But Kramer said “it is clear that the world community is at a crossroads in its collective view of the Internet and of the most optimal environment for the flourishing of the Internet in this century.”
One blogger who follows Internet policy and governance wrote that “the Internet has claimed its first organizational scalp subjecting the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to a humiliating failure.”
According to the Washington Post
, the U.S. fears a section allowing governments to regulate spam could be used to monitor and silence dissidents and others under the auspices of U.N. approval.
A BBC report
says the tipping point at the conference came when conference chair asked for a vote on a change to the treaty preamble recognizing the right of access of ITU member countries to international telecom services. That was seen by some countries as a way to extend regulations to Internet governance.
The ITU has said issues would be decided by consensus and not votes at the conference.
The conference ended Friday with ITU secretary-general Hamadoun Touré calling the signing of the treaty by most countries a “momentous occasion and historic opportunity to bring connectivity to the two thirds of the world’s people who are still offline.”
The conference is run by the ITU, an arm of the United Nations and is dealing with international telecommunications regulations (ITRs) that are generally technical – like allocating radio spectrum.
The WCIT was called to update the ITRs, which haven’t been changed in two decades. However, observers believed that some countries wanted to use the conference to give the ITU some control over the Internet, which is largely overseen by independent organizations like ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) Society, or to pass regulations justifying national control over it.
For that reason, Canada, the U.S. and other countries tried to keep anything that would link to the Internet out of any new wording. In their opinion they failed.
But ITU secretary-general Hamadoun Touré suggested Canada and other countries objecting to some of the language are making too much of very little.
“I have been saying in the run up to this conference that this conference is not about governing the Internet,” he said in a statement. “I repeat that the conference did not include provisions on the Internet in the treaty text.
“Annexed to the treaty is a non-binding resolution which aims at fostering the development and growth of the internet – a task that ITU has contributed significantly to since the beginning of the Internet era, and a task that is central to the ITU’s mandate to connect the world, a world that today still has two thirds of its population without Internet access.
“The new ITR treaty does not cover content issues and explicitly states in the first article that content-related issues are not covered by the treaty. Likewise, in the preamble of the new text signatory member states undertake to renew their commitment and obligation to existing human rights treaties.”
He said the treaty contains many gains and achievements including articles calling for increased transparency in international mobile roaming charges, encouraging competition, promoting greater connectivity for people with disabilities and helping land-locked and small island developing countries roll out of broadband and mobile broadband.
Canadian telecommunications consultant Mark Goldberg couldn’t say if the new treaty will affect Internet governance.
However, he did note that before the treaty was signed China had a firewall restricting citizen access to certain Web sites, Syria had unplugged from the Internet and Iran monitors its Internet users. So already in some countries the Internet is politically controlled. “The ruckus (at WCIT) has nothing do to with an open and accessible Internet,” he said.
For another perspective, Elise Ackerman in Forbes argues that the conference had two successes: Beating off the challenge to the IETF and ICANN, and opening a major ITU conference to the public.