The United States, Canada and UK have refused to sign an international communications treaty at a conference in Dubai. The three countries had objected to calls for all states to have equal rights to the governance of the internet.
Report by BBC
Russia, China and Saudi Arabia were among those pushing for the change.
It marks a setback for the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) which had said it was sure it could deliver consensus.
“It’s with a heavy heart and a sense of missed opportunities that the US must communicate that it’s not able to sign the agreement in the current form,” said Terry Kramer the US ambassador to the World Conference on International Telecommunications (Wcit).
“The internet has given the world unimaginable economic and social benefit during these past 24 years.”
The ITU had organised the 12-day conference in order to revise a communications treaty last overhauled 24 years ago. It said the document would help nations co-ordinate efforts against spam and widen access to the web.
However, much of the discussions ended up focusing on whether or not countries should have equal rights to the development of the internet’s technical foundations.
In particular many attendees believed it was an anachronism that the US government got to decide which body should regulate the net’s address system as a legacy of its funding for Arpanet — a precursor to the internet which helped form its technical core.
However, the US said this allowed it to ensure that technical experts could make “agile, rapid-fire decisions” about the net’s development as part of multi-stakeholder organisations.
It added that other references to net might also be used to legitimise censorship and other interference in the operation of internet service providers (ISPs) and cloud-based operations, such as Google and Facebook.
Its view was supported by the internet and web pioneers Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee who warned any changes posed a “disruptive threat to the stability of the system”.
A proposal from Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Sudan calling for equal rights for all governments to manage “internet numbering, naming, addressing and identification resources” was eventually shelved.
But there was fresh controversy on Wednesday night after an alternative non-binding resolution was debated which suggested the UN agency’s leadership should “continue to take the necessary steps for ITU to play an active and constructive role in the development of broadband and the multi-stakeholder model of the internet.”
This was opposed by the US and European nations who repeated their argument that the treaty’s regulations should not stretch to internet governance.
As debate continued into the early hours of Thursday morning the conference’s chairman, Mohammed Nasser al-Ghanim asked for a “feel of the room” noting afterwards that the resolution had majority support, while stressing that this was not a formal “vote”.
Matters were also complicated by an African bloc of countries calling for a paragraph to be added to the treaty’s preamble stating that: “These regulations recognise the right of access of member states to international telecommunication services.”
The US and its allies suggested this as an attempt to extend the treaty’s regulations to cover internet governance.
After a break for sleep, Iran called for a vote on the African proposal which was carried by 77 votes to 33. This was in spite of the ITU’s earlier pledge that disputed issues would only be resolved by consensus and not a majority vote.
The organisation’s secretary-general attempted to salvage discussions, but the US, Canada and UK said they could no longer ratify the treaty.
“My delegation came to work for revised international telecommunication regulations, but not at any cost,” said the head of the UK delegation Simon Towle. “We prefer no resolution on the internet at all, and I’m extremely concerned that the language just adopted opens the possibility of internet and content issues.”
Despite this setback, the ITU’s secretary-general Dr Hamadoun Toure insisted that those countries which did sign the treaty would benefit from other achievements including “increased transparency in international mobile roaming charges and competition”.
He stressed that it was his belief that — despite what others had indicated — the treaty did not cover content issues.
What other countries said
Negotiators from Denmark, the Czech Republic, Sweden, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Costa Rica and Kenya have said they would need to consult with their national governments about how to proceed and would also not be able to sign the treaty that was planned for Friday.