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US, UK and Canada Refuse to Sign Troubling UN Internet Treaty

December 14th 2012

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The United States said Thursday that it will not sign a United Nations telecommunications treaty that U.S. technology companies warn would disrupt governance of the Internet and open the door to online censorship. The U.K. and Canada also said they would not ratify the treaty after negotiations ended at a conference hosted by the U.N. International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in Dubai.

U.S. Ambassador Terry Kramer, who led the U.S. delegation during the conference, told reporters on a conference call that the U.S. could not sign the treaty because there were “too many issues here that were problematic for us.”

The treaty is intended to govern how telephone calls and other communications traffic are exchanged internationally. While it is not a legally binding document, Kramer said the U.S. opposed extending the scope of the treaty to include Internet governance and online content matters.

“The U.S. will continue to uphold and advance the multi-stakeholder model of the Internet,” Kramer told reporters. The U.S. believed the treaty should not apply to Internet providers or private and government networks. Instead, U.S. delegates argued that only traditional telecommunications operators, such as AT&T and Verizon, should be subject to the updated rules. For this reason, the U.S. opposed a draft resolution floated at the conference that focused specifically on the Internet and would have let the ITU play a more active role in future Internet policy matters.

Even though the resolution was non-binding, Kramer argued that it would set the wrong precedent for future global telecommunications talks. At other global meetings, he said, countries would refer to the Dubai conference and note that it touched on the subject of Internet governance. The U.S. also feared that measures dealing with spam and cybersecurity would open the door for countries to block Internet content they disagreed with, or peer into Web traffic traveling across networks.

The ITU had said its goal for the conference was to reach consensus on the revised treaty, which was first drafted in 1988. The U.N. agency failed to achieve that goal on Thursday after the U.S., U.K. and Canada walked away from the treaty talks.

Sweden, Kenya, Denmark, Egypt and Costa Rica were among the other countries that either voiced reservations about signing the treaty or said they were not going to sign it, said Kramer.

The ITU is holding a signing ceremony on Friday for the countries that agreed to support the treaty. It is set to go into effect in January 2015. Although the U.S. fought hard to exclude Internet-related provisions from the treaty, Kramer said it wouldn’t have teeth because it’s not a legally binding document. Kramer said he didn’t see many near-term risks posed by other countries signing the revised treaty. He added that other countries can already enact Internet regulations within their own borders because of national sovereignty. “If someone wants to, that’s their prerogative, but we’re hoping that’s not an easy task,” Kramer said.

Technology trade groups representing Google, Facebook and Microsoft had sounded the alarm on Thursday over the Internet-related provision that proposed to expand the ITU’s role in future Internet policy discussions. TechNet, TechAmerica, the Computer and Communications Industry Association and the Internet Association argued that the ITU should be excluded from decisions regarding the governance of the Internet.
Google, in particular, had publicly spoken out against the conference. The search giant launched an online advocacy campaign that said some of the proposals submitted for the treaty would threaten innovation and increase online censorship. After the conference negotiations wrapped up on Thursday, the search company said it supported countries that refused to sign the treaty.

“What is clear from the ITU meeting in Dubai is that many governments want to increase regulation and censorship of the Internet,” a Google spokesman 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.” White House officials this week had warned that the U.S. would not support the treaty if it included new Internet regulations, arguing that it could “legitimize more state control over online content.”

In a rare act of unity, both the House and Senate had passed resolutions that directed the U.S. government to oppose international efforts to increase the ITU’s authority over the Internet. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tweeted on Thursday, “I don’t think the @ITU should include the Internet in new treaty. Instead, all govts should keep the Internet open and free for all.”

Jennifer Martinez writes for The Hill, from where this article is adapted. 


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