UN treaty conference in Dubai highlights divisions on governance of Internet

A United Nations treaty conference in Dubai highlighted divisions among countries on how the Internet and content that flows over it should be governed.

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The United States fought against treaty proposals that sought to give the United Nations International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and national governments a greater role in overseeing the Internet. That stance pitted U.S. delegates against Russia, China and a group of countries from Africa and the Middle East, which submitted a proposal to the conference record this week that called for governments to have equal rights over managing the Internet.

Although the conference ended Friday, some observers say the battle over how the Internet should be run is just starting to heat up.

"What has been an Internet Cold War between countries who recognize the value of the Internet and those who fear it has now turned hot," said Larry Downes, an Internet industry analyst, in an email.

The U.S., U.K. and Canada refused to sign the U.N. telecommunications treaty in its current form late Thursday, throwing a wrench into the ITU's goal of achieving consensus on the updated document. The treaty was first crafted in 1988, when the Internet was still in its infancy.

Poland, Sweden, Egypt, Costa Rica and a bloc of other countries said they would either not sign the treaty or expressed reservations with it.

The ITU held a signing ceremony on Friday for the countries that agreed to ratify the treaty, which will go into effect in January 2015. It's unclear what the treaty's effect will be once it's implemented, but there are some concerns that it could lead some countries to manage the Internet in different ways.

"If you start balkanizing the Internet, disrupting the assignment of domain names and numbers, then you end up with a fractured Internet that's less useful," Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) told The Hill. "It's not clear that that's certainly going to happen, but that's a danger."

Robert McDowell, a Republican member of the Federal Communications Commission, warned that the treaty could harm Web innovation in the U.S.

"Even though the United States refused to sign the new agreement, what happened today in Dubai could have ripple effects here at home," McDowell said in a statement. "Consumers everywhere will ultimately pay the price for this power grab as engineers and entrepreneurs try to navigate this new era of an internationally politicized Internet."

Downes argued that several developing countries that could benefit from more broadband access "lined up to sign away their own future."

"That's a win for the anti-Internet crowd, and they'll use what they learned in Dubai to achieve even more disarray in the future," he said.

But some contend that these predictions are overblown.

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"This is not the end or a renaissance of the Internet on either side of it," said Sherwin Siy, vice president of legal affairs for advocacy group Public Knowledge, which had staff members on the U.S. delegation. "[The conference is] another milestone in sort of a very long discussion on Internet governance that's going to keep going on."

Even U.S. Ambassador Terry Kramer, the head of the U.S. delegation, noted on a conference call with reporters that countries can already enact Internet regulations within their own borders because of national sovereignty.

“If someone wants to, that’s their prerogative, but we’re hoping that’s not an easy task,” Kramer said.

Observers note that the U.S., European countries and their allies succeeded in diluting provisions dealing with spam and cybersecurity.

Kramer argued that these measures would have opened the door for countries to censor online content they disagreed with or monitor Web traffic. These provisions also conflicted with the U.S.'s overarching objection to including Internet regulations in an international treaty.

"The delegates through the course of the negotiations managed to get provisions in there that are certainly not as bad as they could have been," said Emma Llanso, a policy counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology. "So it would be very hard to read the actual text of the spam provision and legitimize censorship of communications. In a way, that was something of a success that countries were objecting to even having a mention of spam in the treaty."

U.S. policymakers lauded Kramer and the U.S. delegates for refusing to sign the treaty, arguing they upheld the principles of Internet freedom.

But Siy noted that some developing countries that supported the treaty likely felt comfortable handling future Internet issues at the ITU, a U.N. agency, because each country gets one vote on policy decisions.

Llanso also argued that countries that supported the treaty weren't necessarily anti-Internet freedom. Some developing nations saw the treaty as a way to expand Internet access within their countries, she said.

"That's the problem they're interested in solving right now and many of them saw a revised set of [International Telecommunications Regulations] as the path to do that."