Tech groups sound alarm over UN Internet treaty resolution

Technology trade groups that represent Google, Facebook and Microsoft on Wednesday sounded alarm over a treaty resolution that would let a United Nations agency play a more active role in future Internet policy discussions.

The resolution is being considered at a conference hosted by the U.N. International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in Dubai, where the U.S. delegation has battled against efforts to include Internet-related provisions in the treaty. 

TechNet, TechAmerica, the Computer and Communications Industry Association and The Internet Association argued that the ITU should be excluded from decisions regarding the governance of the Internet. They urged countries to block the resolution from being included in final text of the U.N. treaty.

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"If the future governance of the Internet were in the hands of a statutory international body, there is no doubt that more autocratic countries would attempt to undermine the multiple underpinnings that ensure Internet freedom," said TechAmerica President Shawn Osborne in a statement. "Allowing the U.N. or any other authority to regulate the Internet makes it subject to the political whims of those actors that may seek to stifle the spread of free speech and clamp down on Internet commerce."

The Internet Association CEO Michael Beckerman called on the Internet community "to join together to stop this imminent threat to Internet freedom." The trade association represents Google, Yahoo, eBay and Facebook. Google, in particular, has publicly spoken out against the conference and warned that some treaty proposals could increase online censorship.

The tech industry's concerns come after the chairman of the treaty conference asked delegates to show whether they supported the Internet resolution in the early hours of Thursday, after delegates had spent hours negotiating measures in the treaty. Conference Chairman Mohamed al-Ghanim said he wanted "to have a feel of the room" on the Internet resolution, according to a conference transcript.

The conference chairman said "the majority is with having the resolution" in the treaty after surveying the room. Although al-Ghanim later clarified that the action was not an official vote, conference observers were still confused about whether the resolution was adopted, according to digital advocacy group Access, which posted a copy of the draft resolution to its blog.

ITU spokesman Paul Conneally told reporters on Thursday that a vote did not take place and the conference chairman was "merely taking a temperature of the room." Conneally also stressed that the Internet resolution is nonbinding and has not been formally included in the treaty.

But critics say the measure is still troublesome and should be rejected.

While resolutions may be nonbinding, TechNet CEO Rey Ramsey warned in a statement that the ITU secretary-general "might treat them as binding, which effectively creates a dangerous mandate for the ITU to continue to hold discussions about Internet policy into the future."

"Millions of people all around the world have said that they don't want the ITU involved in the Internet, but that's exactly what this resolution opens the door to," Ramsey said.

Time is running out for the ITU to get consensus from member states on proposed updates to the treaty, which will set rules for how countries handle international telecommunications traffic. The conference is set to wrap up on Friday.

The U.S. delegation, led by Ambassador Terry Kramer, has spent the past two weeks fighting against provisions that would expand the scope of the treaty to the Internet. White House officials this week warned that the U.S. would not support the treaty if it included new Internet regulations, arguing that it could "legitimize more state control over online content."

—This post was updated at 12:44 p.m.