UN Telecom Talks Deadlocked as U.S., Europe Fight Control

Negotiations to update a quarter-century old telecommunications rulebook reached a deadlock as the U.S. and Europe failed to resolve disagreements with China and the Middle East on measures that would increase government control over the Internet.

At the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai, discussions on whether the Internet and Web spam should be included in the new rules gave way to elaborate debate on phrasing because of concern that governments might overstep boundaries in Internet control.

The sessions have been running since Dec. 3 and last night’s debate lasted until 1:30 a.m. local time. While the International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations telecoms agency, has forbidden any discussion of content control or decisions that would increase its authority to cover the Internet, the U.S. argues that some of the proposals would be subject to abuse. The U.S. also said it will block initiatives that would give states the ability to stop spammers on concern that such power would lead to censorship.

“The Internet does well with a multi-stakeholder governance model where you have dedicated organizations that have technical expertise,” Terry Kramer, the leader of the U.S. delegation, said in an interview today. “They include industry, they include governments, they include civil society, to address issues affecting the Internet.”

Before Google

The last time the ITU drafted a treaty on world regulation in communications was in 1988, only a few years after the debut of the first mobile phone, which weighed the equivalent of seven Apple Inc.’s iPhone 5, and long before Google Inc. was founded. The original treaty set principles on topics such as international telecommunications services, emergency calls and trans-border charges.

Twenty-four years on, coming up with a consensus over Internet issues has so far given way to heated debates and backpedaling among some nations.

A proposal that would potentially give countries sovereignty over Internet addresses, for example, was resubmitted by a coalition including China and Russia, a day after the original plan was scrapped.

The U.S., home to the world’s biggest Web companies such as Google and Amazon.com Inc., is resisting any attempt to put regulation of the Internet under the rules of the ITU, Kramer said today. These types of proposals would endanger free speech on the Web and stymie the efforts of independent groups, he said, adding that once governments begin approving or rejecting e-mail, they may decide to prohibit certain kinds of speech, such as political messages.

China, Russia

In the same vein, the U.S. is also blocking attempts by China, Russia and the United Arab Emirates to give countries control over Internet addresses and language that would broaden the definition of agencies that the ITU’s rules govern, Kramer said.

The Saudi-Arabian delegation said in a statement during the plenary that the regulations wouldn’t affect the Internet and were meant to regulate new networks.

“It’s unacceptable that one party to the conference gets everything they want and everybody else must make concessions,” the delegation said.

To address these concerns, which have caused delays in the finalization of the new rules, WCIT President Mohammed Nasser Al-Ghanim proposed wording that explicitly prevents the interpretation of any of the amendments to be used to regulate content.

‘No Content’

The suggestion delayed the process further as delegates argued that the term “content” was too broad and questioned whether it could be separated from a telecom network. Al-Ghanim ultimately pulled his proposal.

“How can a telecommunications network not deal with content?” the Sudan delegation said during the plenary. “Content cannot be avoided in telecommunications networks because it will always be in transit.”

The conference itself has been subject to debate before it even started in Dubai. Criticism has come from government representatives as well as Internet companies, among which Google has been the most vocal. The world’s biggest search engine set up a petition against the event, saying some governments would push for a treaty allowing them to censor the Internet and limit the access to information.

‘Bridge Building’

Some industry and company representatives, including from Google, have attended the conference, though they have spoken up against not being able to vote. Only countries are asked to vote on proposals for the treaty, each of them holding one voice.

The Internet Association, whose members include Google, Zynga Inc., Yahoo! Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and other Web-based companies, today came out against a non-binding vote during the conference that was supposed to gauge support for a resolution to foster growth of the Web.

The survey was intended to “sound the temperature of the room,” and wasn’t a formal vote, Al-Ghanim, who called for the poll, said at the session. The Internet Association said it interpreted the show of hands as a step toward more government control of the Internet.

The association “is strongly opposed to ITU efforts to regulate the Internet, and urges member states to ensure it is not included in the final treaty text,” the lobbying group said in a statement. “We urge the Internet community to join together to stop this imminent threat to Internet freedom.”

The ITU has said that it would aim for consensus and that no proposal would be accepted otherwise.

“We’ve been saying this thing in very good faith -- there was nothing between the lines when we were drafting this document,” said ITU General Secretary Hamadoun Toure. “We are trying to build bridges so we work together so the consumers benefit better. Please, help us to continue to build that bridge.”

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