Last week I wrote about the efforts by some countries -- Russia and China in particular -- to push for an international regulatory regime for the Internet. The issue has come to a head because of the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), which started on December 3 and is set to end tomorrow (Friday). The conference was supposed to draw up a new international treaty on telecommunications, but the United States, the countries of the European Union, and others who favor an open internet free from state control opposed inlcuding any mention of the Internet, which, they feared, would essentially give a pass to repressive governments that would use the regulations as an excuse to block objectionable content. On Wednesday night the conference erupted in controversy when the chairman attempted -- by questionable means -- to include an Internet resolution into the text of the treaty. That resolution was then approved by a majority of the conference participants.
An Obama Administration official familiar with the negotations now tells me that, as a result, the United States will not sign off on the treaty. "Some of the countries apparently thought that what we were saying at the conference was bluster," the official told me today. "It wasn't." What the United States objects to above all is a provision in the resolution that extends the scope of the treaty to all public and private networks -- effectively giving the U.N.'s telecoms agency wide authority over Internet governance. As an example of why the U.S. government thinks this is a bad idea, the official cited a provision in the resolution that would allow countries to combat spam -- "and one country's spam, as we know, is another coutnry's political speech." This loophole would enable repressive regimes to "block an NGO's bulk email without even having to look at its actual content," the official notes.
A bit of last-minute maneuvering has produced what the administration official calls some "cosmetic" changes in the treaty text. The revised language omits stipulations that would allow other nations to charge companies like Google and Facebook for operating in their national markets -- something that many developing nations favor as a way of financing their own Internet infrastructure, but which the United States considers an unwarranted intrusion of freedom of speech. But so far the compromises clearly don't go far enough to assuage U.S. concerns.
Earlier this week White House staffers published a blog post explaining U.S. objections to some of the things that were going on at the conference. But it's not only the government that is bridling at U.N. efforts to establish international control over the Internet. The one-hundred-plus U.S. delegation in Dubai also includes representatives from leading U.S. Internet companies and civic groups -- thus embodying the sort of "multi-stakeholder" approach to Internet governance that the Americans continue to favor.
Note: Later in the day the State Department officially confirmed the news that the U.S. refuses to sign the new ITU agreement.
Photo by ITU Pictures
Transitions is the group blog of the Democracy Lab channel, a collaboration between Foreign Policy and the Legatum Institute.