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UN Telecom Treaty Approved Amid U.S. Web-Censorship Concerns

An agreement to update 24-year-old United Nations telecommunications rules was approved against the opposition of countries including the U.S. and the U.K., whose officials walked out on the talks on concerns about Internet regulation and censorship.

The new pact includes measures that would give countries a right to access international telecommunications services and the ability to block spam, which delegations declining to sign the amended text argued would pave the way for government censorship and control over the Web.

Canada, Denmark, Australia, Norway, Costa Rica, Serbia, Greece, Finland and others followed the U.S. in refusing to sign on these grounds. The countries who won’t sign the new treaty will continue to be bound by the 1988 version, said Sarah Parkes, a spokeswoman for the International Telecommunication Union.

“What is clear from the ITU meeting in Dubai is that many governments want to increase regulation and censorship of the Internet,” Google Inc. (GOOG), the world’s biggest search engine, said in a statement. “We stand with the countries who refuse to sign this treaty and also with the millions of voices who have joined us to support a free and open web.”

Talks at the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai this week were marked by disagreements between anti-regulation countries, including the U.S. and many European states, and a group that argued for some Internet measures to protect and advance networks, including Russia, China and several Middle Eastern nations.

Google Opposition

The conference has attracted criticism because of its one- country-one-vote model that ignores population size. Internet companies including Google have complained that they don’t get a voice in the negotiations. While technology groups are allowed to participate in the discussions and have joined as parts of delegations, they don’t get a vote in the proceedings.

“It’s with a heavy heart and a sense of missed opportunity that the U.S. must communicate that it’s not able to sign the agreement in its current form,” the U.S. delegation said in a statement at the plenary after the final changes were adopted last night. “We candidly cannot support an ITU treaty that is inconsistent with the multi-stakeholder model.”

The International Telecommunication Union, a UN agency, earlier had agreed that no measures would be adopted that gave the body increased control over the Web or the member states the ability to censor content.

Defection Support

Technology industry advocates also came out in support of the defectors today after many, including the Internet Society, a group backed by Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ) and Google, had been critical of the amendments’ language.

“While progress was made in some areas such as transparency in international roaming fees, fundamental divides were exposed leaving a significant number of countries unable to sign the ITRs,” Internet Society President Lynn St. Amour said. “Statements made by a host of delegations today made it very clear that Internet issues did not belong in the ITRs and that they would not support a treaty that is inconsistent with the multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance.”

Off Limits

Still, Hamadoun Toure, the UN secretary general to the ITU, said that he was disappointed in the results and disagreed with many countries’ assessments that the new treaty would increase government control of the Internet.

“The U.S. has weighed in very strongly in the debate. I couldn’t imagine that at the end they wouldn’t sign it,” he said today. “We wanted to show that we want to build bridges because the Internet and telecommunications societies need to work together.”

The ITU had said that Internet and content regulation were off limits throughout the conference and Toure argued that there were no provisions on Web regulation in the text. He said the resolution, which was disputed by the U.S. and others, that mentions fostering the development and growth of the Internet was non-binding.

“The word ‘Internet’ was repeated throughout this conference and I believe this is simply a recognition of the current reality -– the two worlds of telecommunications and Internet are inextricably linked,” Toure said. “History will show that this conference has achieved something extremely important. It has succeeded in bringing unprecedented public attention to the different and important perspectives that govern global communications.”

Tax Changes

Other articles that were passed address changes in the way telecommunications companies should be taxed and compensated in a system that has moved from phone companies that were largely government-owned monopolies to one with private mobile-phone companies. They also address access to communications for people with disabilities and in less developed markets.

Web addresses are currently controlled by two non- governmental organizations, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers and the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority.

“A majority of the ITU member states, including many countries that purportedly support Internet freedom, chose to discard long-standing international consensus to keep the Internet insulated from inter-governmental regulation,” Robert McDowell, Commissioner at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, said in a statement. “By agreeing to broaden the scope of the ITU’s rules to include the Internet, encompassing its operations and content, these nations have radically undermined the highly successful, private sector, non- governmental, multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance.”

Emergency Calls

The U.S. needs to prepare for an “even more treacherous ITU treaty negotiation” that is scheduled to take place in 2014 in South Korea, he said.

The last time the ITU drafted a treaty on world regulation in communications was only a few years after the debut of the first mobile phone and long before Google was founded. The original treaty set principles on topics such as international telecommunications services, emergency calls and trans-border charges.

In the final discussion, a proposal was put to a vote that would have given governments the right to access international communications networks and it divided the member states along similar lines. The U.K. said the measure, which was approved by 77 votes to 33, opened the door to “Internet and content issues.”

‘Hijacked Conference’

The sessions have been running since Dec. 3 and are scheduled to end today. Terry Kramer, an ambassador and one of the heads of the U.S. delegation, said in an interview this week that the key issue for the delegation was ensuring that the amendments didn’t include language around Internet regulation.

“The conference was really supposed to be focused on the telecom sector,” Kramer said. “We feel there have been a bunch of proposals which have come in from the outside to hijack the conference.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Amy Thomson in Dubai at athomson6@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Kenneth Wong at kwong11@bloomberg.net

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