ITU Internet Treaty: In this Case, Failure Was the Best Option

Carl Weinschenk

The big picture of the Internet also has included a heavy emphasis on how it is administered. That, ultimately, leads to who has control.

For instance, the U.S. government, cable and telephone companies long have sparred over whether Internet communications is a data or telecommunications service. At the end of the day, that small tweak in definition leads to big differences in how people pay for it — data services are not taxed — and how it is administered.

That fish or fowl determination — is the Internet a data or telecom service — came into play in what is, believe it or not, an even bigger issue. Recently, the United States rejected a telecommunications treaty being negotiated in Dubai by member countries of the International Telecommunication Union over a disagreement on whether or not to include the Internet. Here is how The New York Times reported it:

The United States has consistently maintained that the Internet should not have been mentioned in the proposed treaty, which dealt with technical matters like connecting international telephone calls, because doing so could lead to curbs on free speech and replace the existing, bottom-up form of Internet oversight with a government-led model.

This is a vital issue. During the past few years, India and the United Arab Emirates and other countries have taken various steps to control BlackBerry data within its borders. While that doesn’t necessarily directly impact the Internet, it shows how eager some national governments are in controlling the flow of information.

A direct instance of the vital nature of Internet governance is its use as a tool during the uprising in Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Libya. Thus, giving governments more control could influence how similar uprising progress — or even if they get started — in the future. The treaty would have been nonbinding, but clearly represented a step toward a top-down administration of the Internet.

Computer Weekly has a good report on the conference, which was the World Conference on International Telecommunications 2012 (WCIT-12). Dr. Hamadoun I. Touré, secretary general of the ITU, maintained that content was not included in the proposed treaty, and was thus harmless. That position was that the treaty was just to address technical issues. A goal was to meet objections of some member countries over the control of Internet addresses held by the United States (through a contract with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN). The skeptics — who eventually ruled the day — saw the treaty as a slippery slope toward control of content.

The IEEE Spectrum, the publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, reports that the negotiations were no small affair: 55 countries participated and the event ran 12 days. Writer Steven Cherry pointed out that even if the negotiations were successful, the treaty would have had to be negotiated further and approved by the Senate. Clearly, however, the IEEE position was that the failure of negotiations, in this case, was the best option.



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