Citing non-negotiable issues including Internet governance, content regulation and network security, the United States has refused to support a set of revised regulations at the U.N. backed International Telecommunications Union (ITU) World Conference on International Communications (WCIT) in Dubai.
This means that the telecom-turned-Internet debate will not receive the U.S. "seal of approval," and serves as a sharp reminder of how differently the U.S. sees the future of the Web compared to more autocratic regimes around the world.
"The United States today announced it cannot sign the revised international telecommunication regulation in their current form," said Ambassador Terry Kramer, the head of the U.S. delegation, in a conference call with ReadWrite. "The decision to do a no-sign, there wasn't a lot of consternation on it. There were too many issues here that were problematic for us."
Kramer named five major reasons the U.S. refused to sign the treaty:
Why The U.S. Said No
1. Terminology, specifically "recognized operating agencies" versus "operating agencies." Recognized operating agencies are traditional providers of telecommunication services while operating agencies include private and government Inernet networks. The problem here is that reorganizing this phrase would give governments the ability to monitor and regulate their nation's Internet activity. It seems mundane and minor, but it's not. It gives international approval to legitimized government censorship, taxed international Internet traffic and the end of the free and open Internet era. Countries like Russia, China and Saudi Arabia are among a collective that wants to use this change to seize more regulatory power (see this conference proposal from those countries).
"The United States consistently sought to clarify that the treaty would not apply to Internet service providers, or governments, or private network operators," Kramer said. However, group consensus did not sway in the U.S.' direction. Below is a video of the Ambassador on the critical differences between the terms in question:
2. Spam. While everyone despises junk mail and pop-ups, threatening to take control of spam could lead to a host of problems. That's because the U.S. views spam as a form content, and thereby a free speech issue. Wider ranging abilities to control spam could lead to wider level control of other forms of content.
"Spam is a form of content and regulating it inevitably opens the door to regulating other forms of content, including political and cultural speech," Kramer explained.
3. Network Security. Cyber and network security is a hot button issue. So hot that members of the Anonymous collective claimed responsibility for a Denial of Service attack against the conference last week. But this served only to strengthen the resolve of members states, who called for more power to combat this issue. However, granting that authority is like writing a blank check that could lead to an abuse of power claiming to fight cyber criminals. Plus, the language detailing how the security measures would be implemented was very broad, making the U.S. lose further confidence in its practice.
"The United States continues to believe that the ITRs [International Telecommunication Regulations] are not a useful venue for addressing security issues and cannot [agree] to a vague commitment that would have significant implications but few practical improvements on security," Kramer said. "You open the door for an organization to say, in the quest of dealing with cyber security issues, 'I'm going to have to look at content, and I'm going to make it OK to review that content.' "
4. Internet Governance. "No single organization or government can or should control the Internet or dictate its future development," said Kramer. The U.S. has been vocal about keeping Internet control out of the hands of the United Nations or of any individual nations hands. On Tuesday, officials from the White House stated that they would not support any U.N. sanctioned Web control or mandates. Instead, the U.S. prefers using a multi-prong approach, incorporating non-governmental organizations like ICANN, IFTF and WC3, to monitor the Net. While the ITU conference initially was set up to discuss traditional telecom issues, it quickly turned into a debate about the future of the Internet. And some of that talk centered on governments changing URLs, which could have major, negative ramifications for the infrastructure of the Web as well as those wishing to silence activists and dissidents.
"In several proposals, it was clear that some administrations were seeking to insert government control over Internet governance," Kramer explained. "Specifically Internet naming and addressing functions. We continue to believe these issues can only be legitimately handled through multi-stakeholder organizations."
5. The Internet Resolution. "Despite earlier assertions by Secretary General Hamadoun Toure that the WCIT [World Conference on International Telecommunications] would not address Internet issues," that's exactly where talks ended up, said Kramer. Still, the U.S. engaged in good faith discussion regarding these issues, he said. But, that good faith wasn't met. "Other administartions have continually filed out of scope proposals that unacceptably altered the nature of the discussions and ultimately of the ITRs," Kramer added.
The U.S. wasn't the only nation to refuse to sign. A slew of countries refused to sign and/or expressed significant reservations after Kramer announced his decision on behalf of the U.S. The list includes the UK, Costa Rica, Denmark, Egypt, Sweden, Netherlands, Kenya, Czech Republic, Canada, New Zealand and Poland. "A lot of other countries see the same issues as we do," Kramer noted.
One potential negative of this outcome, however, is the creation of two Internets: One open and one closed.
"We obviously hope this doesn't happen," Kramer said. Openess will lead to better overall economics, a point he hoped will keep foreign governments from privatizing their Webs. "Our job in all of this is to continue to espouse the benefits of an open Internet... that will create a natural bias and momentum and favor it."
Kramer warned that countries could take another approach and create a second Internet, but called the Balkanization of the Web: "very difficult to pull off." After all, countries have national sovereignty rights, which means they can essentially do what they want to do. The ITR aren't legally binding terms, so what's agreed on at the ITU still has to go back to each country's legislature. Even if these new rules are approved, they may not be implemented, says Kramer.
Changes don't take effect until January 2015, so there's still plenty of time for changes, including other pending Internet conferences (including the WTPF policy forum in May of 2013 and the IGF forum in fall 2013). Kramer says that interim period could be marked by buyer's remorse from nations that adopt some of these provisions.
This conference is important because of the precedent and tone it sets. "The divergence of views is significant," he acknowledged. But Kramer insisted the debate was not a failure. "Our end goal is to create an environment where we can say there's going to be success for the Internet and telecom... I do think this was a success and there are going to be more of them... While there was no consensus at WCIT12 the conference served a valuable purpose in clarifying views and building a foundation for dialogue."
"All of the growth and development of the Internet have resulted not from government action, or of inter-governmental treaty," Kramer said. "We have every expectation that the Internet will continue to grow and provide enormous benefits worldwide."
Photo courtesy of itupictures.