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December 17, 2012

Western Nations Walk Out of Internet Treaty Talks, Refuse to Sign Document

The threat of government control of the Internet was averted — for the time being — Dec. 14 when the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Australia and their allies walked out of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Internet treaty talks in Dubai.

The Western nations refused to sign the proposed revisions to the treaty that would have handed governments the authority to control the flow of information on the Web.

Of the 193 countries to take part in the World Conference on International Telecommunications (Wcit) hosted by the ITU, a United Nations organization that oversees international communication policy, 144 countries are eligible to sign the document.

The U.S., Canada, the U.K., Japan, India, Germany, Australia and Italy have indicated they will not sign while 55 countries reserved the right to sign later after conferring with their governments. It is believed most European nations will follow the U.S. and its allies, however.

Eighty-nine countries, including Russia, China, Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil, Turkey, Singapore, and Saudi Arabia, signed the treaty, which hasn’t been updated since 1988.

“It is with a heavy heart and a sense of missed opportunities that the U.S. must communicate that it is not able to sign the agreement in the current form,” Ambassador Terry Kramer told the Wcit before walking out of the conference.

“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. These past two weeks, we have of course made good progress and shown a willingness to negotiate on a variety of telecommunications policy issues, such as roaming and settlement rates, but the United States continues to believe that Internet policy must be multi-stakeholder driven. Internet policy should not be determined by member states but by citizens, communities, and broader society, and such consultation from the private sector and civil society is paramount. This has not happened here.”

Kramer told the media via a teleconference call there are five main issues with the proposed changes.

The following is an excerpt from that call:

“No. 1, recognized operating agencies versus operating agencies. The United States consistently sought to clarify that the treaty would not apply to Internet service providers or governments or private network operators.

“No. 2, spam. The United States position remains that spam is a form of content and that regulating it inevitably opens the door to regulation of other forms of content, including political and cultural speech.

“No. 3, network security. The United States continues to believe that the ITRs are not a useful venue for addressing security issues and cannot accede to vague commitments that would have significant implications but few practical improvements on security.

“No. 4, Internet governance. In several proposals, it was clear that some administrations were seeking to insert government control over Internet governance, specifically Internet naming and addressing functions. We continue to believe these issues can only be legitimately handled through multi-stakeholder organizations.

“And finally, No. 5, the Internet resolution. This document represented a direct extension of scope into the Internet and of the ITU’s role therein despite earlier assertions from Secretary General Hamadoun Toure that the WCIT would not address Internet issues.”

ITU secretary general Hamadoun Toure refuted Western claims of Internet censorship, saying the revised treaty is needed to extend online services to poorer nations and drive sustainable development.

“The conference did not include provisions on the Internet in the treaty text,” said Toure. “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.”

Policies outlined in the proposed treaty won’t go into effect until 2015 and, even then, delegates in agreement must still have their governments ratify the document before then.

While some experts believe the treaty is a cause for concern and took issue with the language, saying the document would give governments the muscle to regulate Internet content creators and app developers, others say there is no cause for concern.

Dan Bart, president and CEO of IT consulting firm Valley View and former CTO of the Telecommunications Industry Association told PC World governments wishing to censor the Internet in their countries already do so.

“Nations will do what nations will do,” Bart said. “You will do what you want regardless of what a piece of paper says.”