Crunch time for US negotiators working to keep Internet rules out of UN treaty

Delegates from the United States are running out of time to bury proposals that could have a major effect on the Internet as a United Nations treaty conference heads into its final week.

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The top item on the U.S.'s agenda is to confine the scope of the international treaty to telecommunications networks, so its regulations only apply to major operators like AT&T and Verizon. Members of the U.S. delegation, led by Ambassador Terry Kramer, are pushing back against proposals from Russia and other countries that want to include measures in the treaty that apply to the Internet.

But with just days until the conference wraps up on Dec. 14, the matter remains unresolved.

"That's looking very much like one of the sticking points," said Sarah Parkes, a spokeswoman for the United Nations International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which is hosting the treaty conference in Dubai.

The countries are convening to update the U.N. International Telecommunications Regulations treaty for the first time since 1988. The treaty governs how telephone calls and other communications traffic are exchanged internationally.

Member countries of the ITU are holding a series of informal meetings over the weekend to try to reach consensus on the scope of the treaty, among other matters. Delegates have been meeting around the clock to complete their work on the treaty before the conference ends.

Despite the time crunch, ITU Secretary General Hamadoun Touré expressed confidence during a media briefing on Friday that member countries would find consensus on whether the treaty would apply to so-called operating agencies, which include players from the Internet sector.

"I see real things in common," Touré said. "One camp tells you what it wants to see in the document, the other camp is telling you what it doesn't want to see. In reality, they're saying the same thing and therefore the discussions are going."

"I'm sure this issue will be resolved," he said.

Kramer also framed the matter in a positive light during a conference call with reporters this week. He denied a report from Reuters that said the U.S. failed to secure early backing from other countries on its proposal to keep Internet regulations out of the treaty, saying it is gaining traction with countries in Europe, Latin America and the Asia-Pacific region.

Formal discussions on the question of whether the treaty will apply to operating agencies will pick up on Monday.

But there's still another battle brewing on the horizon for the U.S. The conference has not yet turned its attention to a proposal that Google fears would require its video-sharing service, YouTube, and other data-heavy websites to pay tolls in order for content to be delivered across borders.

The search giant has warned users about the proposal, known as "sending party network pays," in an online advocacy campaign it rolled out before the conference kicked off. Google has argued that this proposal would limit people's access to information, especially in developing countries, and threatens the future of a "free and open" Internet.

Touré said Friday that the member countries have not yet started discussions on payment issues. He said he hopes countries can find consensus on a proposal that sparks investment in telecommunications networks.

"The whole conference will be judged by how much energy it will bring into that overall investment environment," Touré told reporters.

The U.S. delegation will also have to tackle measures put forward in a new treaty proposal introduced by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on Friday, adding another layer of complexity to next week's negotiations.

The proposal received support from some Arab states and Russia when it was submitted, though it had not been shared with regional groups in Europe or the Americas, according to a person familiar with the conference proceedings.

Touré described the UAE proposal as a "compromise text" that is intended to bridge the differences among member countries on the treaty.

Although the proposal took some by surprise, Touré said the introduction of a compromise text "always comes in negotiations of this nature."

"I'm sure if the UAE had not come up with this proposal, someone else would have done so, so I'm simply happy to see the host country is bringing it on board," Touré said.

He added that the ITU would translate the proposal over the weekend and have it available to member countries on Monday.

During the press briefing, Touré warned there are rumors that hackers have threatened to unleash another attack on the conference Saturday. An attack could disrupt the countries' meetings over the weekend as the ITU has published most of the conference documents on its site.

The ITU's site was inaccessible for parts of Wednesday due to a "network outage." A Twitter account that appeared to be associated with the hacker group Anonymous claimed responsibility for the outage. The ITU said some delegates "were frustrated" because they could not access some of the documents that were being considered at the conference.

Touré said the ITU has taken "appropriate measures" to ensure the conference "will proceed unabated" and condemned the hackers' threats. He did not specify the source of the rumored hacker attack.

"I will not tolerate extremists who try to deny others the freedom of expression they claim for themselves," Touré said.