Ambassador: Web treaty plans pushed by Iran, China could lead to censorship

U.S. Ambassador Terry Kramer on Friday warned that countries like China and Iran are looking to propose troublesome language for a telecommunications treaty that could lead to online censorship and government monitoring of Web traffic. 

The countries say those proposals are intended to protect computer networks from malicious spam and crack down on online child pornography, but the methods they suggest to accomplish this via the treaty would allow them to see "what information is flowing on the Internet," including what people are doing and saying on the Web, Kramer said at an event hosted by Johns Hopkins University's Center for Transatlantic Relations. 

"There are a variety of non-democratic nations that are seeking to put some content restrictions out there, that are saying they want to know how traffic flows," said Kramer, who is heading up the U.S. delegation for the upcoming treaty conference in Dubai this December.

He said these cybersecurity proposals initially look innocuous, but upon a second look, they propose to broaden the scope of the treaty so it shifts from regulating telecommunications networks to regulating information online.

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Spam and child pornography are serious Internet threats that need to be cracked down on, but Kramer said these countries are using them to argue for "managing traffic and looking at what's happening where [on the Web].'" He said the U.S. finds such traffic monitoring proposals "completely inappropriate."

While many countries haven't officially submitted their text language for the upcoming treaty negotiations, Kramer said that "there's been enough messaging on this in early proposals that we know that these [proposals] are going to come forward." He said China, Iran and other countries in the Middle East have expressed interest in pushing for this language to be included in the treaty.

In December, countries will converge on Dubai to update an international telecommunications treaty for the first time since 1988. The treaty conference will be overseen by the United Nations' International Telecommunications Union and will set forth principles that affect how the flow of voice, video and data traffic will be managed across the world, according to the conference's website.

The upcoming negotiations have grabbed the attention of major American companies like AT&T, Google, Verizon and Cisco because some countries are reportedly looking to submit proposals that would threaten their business operations. Congress has also sounded alarm over rumors that some countries want to push for expanding a U.N. agency's authority over the Internet.

Kramer said the U.S. will be looking to leverage its partnership with European countries to get other nations or "swing states" aligned with its treaty positions. He said it will also be important for the U.S. to continue engaging in discussions with Korea, Indonesia, Singapore and countries in southern Africa about the treaty.