ITU Succeeds in Doing Nothing

To no one’s surprise, but apparently to some countries’ dismay, the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and 52 other countries have failed to sign on to a draft treaty that would have updated a 1988 U.N. accord that, given the technology of the day, mostly governed international telephone calls. The treaty was proposed at a 12-day conference held by the U.N.’s International Telecommunications Union.

There seems to be some confusion about what signing the treaty would have meant. Fox News’s headline—“U.S. refuses to sign U.N. Internet regulations”—for example, was wrong in a number of key respects. First, the ITU is not a regulatory body. Second, what was proposed was a treaty, which is just a starting point for regulations. Third, even had the U.S. representative, Ambassador Terry Kramer, signed the treaty, it would have then gone for ratification to the U.S. Senate, which has been something of an elephant graveyard for past treaties. There’s no reason to think the Senate would have looked at this treaty any more kindly than, say, the Kyoto Protocol.

Nor should there have been any confusion about the U.S. position going into the conference. I had a chance to interview Kramer a few days before it began. I asked him whether a successful conference outcome, from the U.S. point of view, would be essentially the inertial one of not changing anything. He answered in the affirmative:

We need to view as success here, realizing “Let things go,” that things can operate well without it. Think, in this case, the last time these [International Telecommunications Regulations] were reviewed was 24 years ago. And so if you look what’s happened in those 24 years, the mobile industry’s gone from almost 0 percent penetration to almost 100 percent, and in developing markets, 70 percent of the population have got a mobile. If you look at the Internet space, it was almost nonexistent in ’88, and now it’s one of the fundamental ways we deal with one another. And you say, “Okay, as we’re looking at these ITRs, tell me exactly what’s broken?” And the reality is, there’s very, very little broken.

Rightly or wrongly, the U.S. position is that any changes to the Internet may interfere with the free flow of information with and across the borders of repressive governments, and with the ability of network engineers to react quickly to emergencies when managing the net. The U.S. take was ably parroted by the New York Times in an editorial on Wednesday when it said,

[A] group of countries led by Russia and China are trying to use the deliberations, the first in 24 years and taking place under United Nations auspices, to undermine the open spirit of the Internet.

The Times continued:

[N]ow they want international law to endorse their control and censorship of the Internet and possibly even tighten control in ways that would make it harder for users to get information online and allow governments to monitor Internet traffic more readily.

An even more disturbing idea, from the U.S. standpoint, to have the ITU take over management of the Internet’s domain name system from ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), was withdrawn on Wednesday, only a few days after it was proposed. Control of the system for matching Internet addresses to domain names, and therefore to the Web addresses we’re used to using, would make it easier for repressive regimes to cut a nation off from the Internet, especially if, unlike, say, Egypt or Syria, the nation has more than a handful of backbone links to the outside world.

While the U.S.’s “refusal” is getting the headlines, it’s far from the only country to withhold support. In fact, as the BBC noted, it was joined by more than 50 countries:

Negotiators from Denmark, Italy, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Greece, Portugal, Finland, Chile, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Costa Rica and Kenya have said they would need to consult with their national governments about how to proceed and would also not be able to sign the treaty as planned on Friday.

In total 89 countries have signed the treaty and 55 have either reserved the right to do so later or ruled out ratifying it altogether.

That’s a lot of dissent considering that, as the BBC article also notes, the ITU originally promised not to bring to a vote anything that didn’t already have full consensus.

Image credit: ITU

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