US And UK Refuse To Sign UN Internet Treaty

Both the UK and the US are amongst a host of countries who will not be signing a UN Internet treaty intended to regulate the governance of cyberspace, effectively making a major meeting in Dubai utterly fruitless.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) of the UN was hoping to have a consensus on the treaty today, after a lengthy World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT)in Dubai. The aim of the meeting was to revise a communications treaty that was set up back in 1988 before the widespread use of Internet services was envisaged.

The crux of the debate has centred around whether governments or centralised bodies should be granted more power over Internet regulation. Google and other Internet companies have voiced their concerns about the meeting, noting that engineers and those who run the Web have been left out of discussions.

UN Internet treaty in tatters

But it looks as if the chief aim of the conference is not going to be achieved, now that many UN members, including the UK, US, Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden, have declared they will not be signing the new treaty.

Others have signed, but given that there was no consensus, the talks appear to have achieved very little indeed.

US ambassador Terry Kramer said that with “a sense of missed opportunities”, it was not able to sign the proposed agreement.

Head of the UK delegation Simon Towle said it preferred “no resolution on the internet at all”. “I’m extremely concerned that the language just adopted opens the possibility of internet and content issues,” he said.

China, Russia and others have sought to gain more power over Internet regulation, shifting control over Web infrastructure from bodies in the US to other members of the UN.

Earlier this week, TechWeekEurope reported on a leaked document, entitled ‘Proposals for the Work of the Conference’, which indicated China, Russia, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Sudan wanted a “sovereign right to establish and implement public policy, including international policy, on matters of Internet governance, and to regulate the national Internet segment”.

They also wanted to wrest control over the naming system on the Web from the US-based Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

Those countries withdrew those proposals, after an uproar from more liberal voices, but even more controversial ideas were put forward earlier in the week that suggested the ITU should have an active role in the development of the Internet.

The ITU has published a ‘Final Acts’ document, but this says little of what nations have agreed on, and provides little detail on the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) themselves.

The document contained an instruction for the ITU secretary general, indicating an allowance for greater control over the Web within the UN body. It said the body should “play an active and constructive role in the development of broadband and the multistakeholder model of the Internet”.

But given the lack of consensus, it’s now unclear what impact that document will have, if any at all.

The ITU’s secretary general Dr Hamadoun Toure stressed that the treaty did not even cover the Inernet. “I have been saying in the run up to this conference that this conference is not about governing the Internet. I repeat that the conference did NOT include provisions on the Internet in the treaty text.

“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.”

One area that may have gained a consensus, however, is green IT. A blog post from the ITU yesterday said members had come to an agreement on a provision targeting “energy efficiency and e-waste”.

“A provision of Article 8 encourages member states to cooperate in adopting best-practice energy efficiency and e-waste policies, regulations and business practices,” the blog read.

Yet as that provision also lies in the ITRs, it will most likely also disappear in a puff of smoke.

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Thomas Brewster

Tom Brewster is TechWeek Europe's Security Correspondent. He has also been named BT Information Security Journalist of the Year in 2012 and 2013.

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