United States balks at U.N. group’s “Internet power grab”

The United States and 80 key allies didn’t sign a draft United Nations treaty on Friday that proposed that individual nations can potentially censor the Internet.

The last-second addition of wording about the rights of all nations to have a role in controlling the Internet sparked outrage from Western nations and their allies.

Forbes says 80 allies joined the U.S. in refusing to sign the pact.

The argument in Dubai was over some very familiar American concepts, such as freedom of speech, sovereignty, and equal access to markets.

For months, critics in the U.S. have called the conference a veiled attempt to close markets to American companies and to allow nations, under an indirect U.N. sanction, to block and control Internet content within their borders.

And for months, officials from the U.N.-sponsored International Telecommunications Union (ITU) have denied the claims and said they were inaccurate.

The 12-day World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) was run by the U.N.-sponsored ITU, and it was seeking to update a 1988 document called the International Telecommunication Regulations Treaty.

The U.N. group was considering controls over the Internet as an expansion of its current mandate over telephones, television, and radio networks.

In the end, a late nonbinding provision tacked on to the treaty stated, “the Internet is a central element of the infrastructure of the information economy, and recognizes that all governments should have an equal role and responsibility for international Internet governance, the security and stability of the Internet, and its future development.”

The U.S. government, in a rare sign of internal unity, strongly opposes the U.N. group’s proposed role as a conduit for nations to monitor and block Internet content, under the apparent indirect sanction of the international group.

The trade publication Communications Day says the addendum was sponsored by a bloc of African nations, and Iran led the effort to get it passed by a majority vote.

Communications Day said the development was stunning because another group of nations, including Russia, China, and Egypt, dropped similar plans last Monday, in an effort to get the U.S. and its allies to sign a deal that excluded any Internet provisions.

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U.S. ambassador Terry Kramer bluntly said his country had no interest in signing the treaty.

“The Internet has given the world unimaginable economic and social benefit during these past 24 years. All without U.N. regulation,” Kramer said.

“Today, we’re in a situation where we still have text and resolutions that cover issues on spam and also provisions on Internet governance … the United States continues to believe that Internet policy must be multi-stakeholder driven. Internet policy should not be determined by Member States, but by citizen, communities, and broader society. And such consultation from the private sector and civil society is paramount. This has not happened here,” Kramer said.

In a statement on Thursday night, International Telecommunications Union Secretary General Dr. Hamadoun I. Touré said the Western nations shouldn’t be threatened by the document.

“I repeat that the conference did NOT include provisions on the Internet in the treaty text. Annexed to the treaty is a non-binding Resolution which aims at fostering the development and growth of the Internet–a task that ITU has contributed significantly to since the beginning of the Internet era, and a task that is central to the ITU’s mandate to connect the world, a world that today still has two thirds of its population without Internet access,” Toure said.

“The word ‘Internet’ was repeated throughout this conference and I believe this is simply a recognition of the current reality–the two worlds of telecommunications and Internet are inextricably linked,” he said.

Simon Towle, the leader of the U.K. delegation, agreed with Kramer.

“On the Internet itself, our position is clear. We do not see the ITRs as the place to address Internet issues,” Towle said.

The summit in Dubai debated Internet censorship and “fees” related to the Internet, mostly behind closed doors.

In all, 193 countries were at the summit, with about 1,500 delegates.

The event was serious enough that in a highly charged partisan environment of Washington, the Obama administration, top Republicans and Democrats in Congress, and even top tax fighter Grover Norquist all agreed the Internet should be kept free when it comes to access and taxes.

Russia had been attached to a proposal, leaked last month, that would take away the power of ICANN, a U.S.-based nonpartisan agency that regulates all Internet addresses, and give that power to the U.N. and individual nations. But that proposal was dropped.

In reality, some countries already block Web access, but an official mandate to let ITU members control how Internet access points are assigned and monitored would make the whole process much easier to manage—and censor.

Some critics say the real issue is a power grab to take ICANN away from any swaying influence exerted on it by the U.S. government.

Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of Constitution Daily.