A “bad agreement that does nobody any favours and makes nobody happy”. That’s how the head of the UK’s delegation to the ITU meeting in Dubai this month described the telecommunications treaty eventually put on the table. Simon Towler was understandably irate. For two weeks his team spent hours in intense negotiations, but were largely ignored by other UN members and by the ITU itself, TechWeekEurope understands.
Although 89 governments put pen to paper on the treaty, which sought to replace rules outlined by the UN body in 1988, another 55 refused to. In the case of the UK and the US, it appears they will never sign the thing, even though it is only 30 pages long and carries no real specifics that UN members must adhere to.
It isn’t even legally binding. “ITU has no international enforcement mechanism. It is more a gentlemen’s agreement,” ITU spokesperson Sarah Parkes told us. “Those who did not sign are still covered by the 1988 treaty after the new one comes into force on 1 Jan 2015.”
The final International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) themselves were not solely what left the UK delegation, which included government officials and members of private industry such as ARM, BT and Intel, feeling so embittered. Cracks emerged in negotiations, where the British team attempted compromise and offered olive branches, but received nothing in return, not even from the supposedly impartial ITU.
A member of the UK team, Dominique Lazanski, of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, told TechWeekEurope the ITU was guilty of outrageous opacity, especially on the Internet resolution that was forced through last week into the final ITRs.
“The Internet resolution was really forced through by a non-vote. It was egregious. We were sitting there wondering what was going on,” she explains. When the ITU called for what appeared to be a vote on the resolution, Towler called for a point of order, asking whether it was a genuine vote. The chairman said it was not, yet the resolution went through anyway, even though the ITU had repeatedly stressed the conference was not “about governing the Internet”. “And that point of order didn’t even appear in the transcript,” Lazanski adds.
Last Tuesday, there were more underhand goings on, according to Lazanski. Right before a new treaty text was to be proposed for ratification, a closed-door meeting was held to discuss what went into the document, but a number of countries, including the UK, were left out. “That was a big mistake for a lot of countries that didn’t sign.”
Elsewhere, a number of nations – namely China, Russia and the UAE – put forward ideas that the UK “simply could not accept”. Security was one major sticking point, particularly amongst the Foreign Office officials at the meeting. Both China and Russia wanted treaty resolutions that would give them “validation for the kind of filtering and blocking they do”, says Lazanski.
But the UK “couldn’t live with” anything covering security. The stipulation that made it into the final treaty says nations “shall individually and collectively endeavour to ensure the security and robustness of international telecommunication networks”. It’s easy to see how that could be abused by nations who want to go a little further than others in ensuring citizens aren’t doing anything “wrong” on the Web.
There was plenty of bonhomie when the talks fell apart. Onlookers declared the free Internet had won out. Companies like Google, who rather loudly made their chagrin known to the world, rejoiced. Yet amidst the celebrations lie widening divides between nations in how they believe the Internet should be managed. And Britain is having no success convincing others to keep the Web open and free for all.
The treaty may be all but dead in the water, but the bad taste left by the ITU conference will linger for some time, especially in the mouths of the wounded Brits. When further ITU meetings take place next year, such as the 2013 World Telecommunication/Information and Communication Technology Policy Forum, the UK is set to struggle to have its voice heard again. Given the UK is a major backer of a largely unregulated Internet, that may be bad for the future of the open Web.
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