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'Humiliating failure': Confusion on internet future after UN treaty split

Rob Lever (AFP/SMH) | Dec. 17, 2012
The freewheeling, unregulated internet seemed to survive a push for new rules at a UN treaty meeting, but the collapse of talks leaves unanswered questions about the web's future.

he freewheeling, unregulated internet seemed to survive a push for new rules at a UN treaty meeting, but the collapse of talks leaves unanswered questions about the web's future.

A total of 89 countries endorsed the global treaty on telecom regulations at the UN's International Telecommunication Union gathering in Dubai on Friday, but the United States, Australia and dozens of others refused to sign, saying it opened the door to regulating the internet.

ITU chief Hamadoun Toure insisted that the treaty had nothing to do with the internet, despite what he called "a non-binding resolution which aims at fostering the development and growth of the internet".

"This conference was not about the internet control or internet governance, and indeed there are no provisions on the internet," the ITU secretary-general told participants at the signing ceremony.

But James Lewis, who follows internet governance at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said backers of the treaty distorted the facts.

"They were lying," he said. "It was totally about the internet."

Lewis told AFP the ITU lost credibility because "they swore up and down there wouldn't be a vote, that a decision would be by consensus, and then they took a vote".

The outcome underscored a deep divide between the US and its allies, which seek to keep the internet open and unregulated, and authoritarian regimes that want to impose controls over online use and content.

Russia, China and Saudi Arabia have been among countries seeking such changes.

Still, Lewis said the World Conference on International Telecommunication, organised by the ITU in Dubai, failed to wrest control of the internet addressing system from the global nonprofit group called ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

It remains unclear, said Lewis, whether the treaty can even become effective without a majority of the 193 ITU members endorsing it.

"The ITU has to suspend consensus rules to say this treaty is to take effect, and then it becomes an issue for the lawyers," he said, adding that the matter could end up before the UN Security Council.

US officials, who led opposition to new internet rules, said the document adopted in Dubai will have little immediate impact.

Countries can exercise control of online activity within their borders, but Washington and others objected to a treaty that would legitimise new internet controls under UN auspices.

The head of the US delegation, Terry Kramer, walked out of the hall as the signing started after protesting that the treaty was "seeking to insert governmental control over internet governance".

 

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