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U.S. Rejects Telecommunications Treaty
Talks on a proposed treaty governing international telecommunications collapsed in acrimony on Thursday when the United States rejected the agreement on the eve of its scheduled signing, citing an inability to resolve an impasse over the Internet.
“It is with a heavy heart that I have to announce that the United States must communicate that it is unable to sign the agreement in its current form,” Terry Kramer, head of the American delegation, announced moments after a final draft appeared to have been approved by a majority of nations.
The United States announcement was seconded by Canada and several European countries after nearly two weeks of talks that had often pitted Western governments against Russia, China and developing countries. The East-West and North-South divisions harked back to the cold war, even though that conflict did not stop previous agreements to connect telephone calls across the Iron Curtain.
While the proposed agreement was not set to take effect until 2015 and was not legally binding, Mr. Kramer insisted that the United States and its supporters had headed off a significant threat to the “open Internet.”
The messy end to the proceedings highlighted intractable differences of opinion over the ever-growing importance of digital communications networks as tools for personal communications, global commerce, political proselytization and even unconventional warfare.
“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,” said Hamadoun Touré, secretary general of the International Telecommunication Union.
The United States has consistently maintained that the Internet should not have been mentioned in the proposed treaty, which dealt with technical matters like connecting international telephone calls, because doing so could lead to curbs on free speech and replace the existing, bottom-up form of Internet oversight with a government-led model.
“We cannot support a treaty that is not supportive of the multistakeholder model of Internet governance,” Mr. Kramer said. His announcement came moments after the telecommunication union, the United Nations agency that convened the talks here, announced that a final version of the text had been formulated.
A bloc of countries led by Russia that included China and the host nation, the United Arab Emirates, argued throughout the negotiations that the Internet was within the scope of the talks because Internet traffic traveled through telecommunications networks.
The goal of the talks, which were led by Mohamed Nasser al-Ghanim, director general of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of the United Arab Emirates, was to revise a document that was last updated in 1988, when the Internet was in its early stages of development.
Agreement was never going to be easy. Like most U.N. agencies, the International Telecommunication Union tries to operate by consensus, resorting to majority vote only when this fails.
The United States delegation was apparently angered by developments early Wednesday, when Russia and its allies succeeded in winning, by a mere show of hands, approval of a resolution that mentioned the Internet. The informal vote followed an attempt by Mr. Ghanim to gauge, as he put it, “the temperature of the room.”
The United States and its supporters interpreted the wording of the resolution as supporting a shift in the governance of the Internet to bring it under the regulatory framework of the telecommunication union.
The Internet is currently overseen by a loose grouping of organizations, mostly in the private sector, rather than by governments. But at least one, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, operates under a contract from the United States government.
Resolutions are not officially part of the treaty wording, and Russia and its allies previously tried to include a similar clause in the actual treaty. But under a compromise, it agreed this week to withdraw that proposal and settle for the lesser measure. Even that, however, was insufficient to address the concerns of the United States and its supporters.
Before rejecting the proposed treaty, the United States secured several critical victories in the negotiations. Proposals to require Internet companies to pay telecommunications companies for the traffic on their networks, sought by some African and Asian nations and by European phone companies, were removed.
But other wording to which the United States objected, dealing with network security and spam, remained. The United States argued that these provisions could be used by governments as a pretext for a clampdown on free speech.
Another thorny issue was whether the treaty should include a reference to human rights in its preamble. Several European countries, supported by the United States, Tunisia, Kenya and others, managed to insert such language into the proposal, arguing that “nondiscriminatory access” to telecommunications was an important free-speech issue. But China, Saudi Arabia and other countries consistently opposed this.
Late Thursday, a new dispute flared over a proposal by African nations to add a guarantee that nations, not just individuals, should have access to “international telecommunications services.” This was adopted in a majority vote, over the objections of the United States and many European nations.
The United States position on many issues has been supported by intense lobbying from Internet companies like Google and groups that campaign against restrictions on the Web, like the Internet Society. Fears about what might happen at the conference were fueled by the fact that it took place in the United Arab Emirates, whose government was alarmed by the role of the Internet in helping to bring about the Arab Spring.
The telecommunication union has consistently maintained that it has no interest in overseeing the Internet. The Russian delegation, too, insisted that it had no intention of usurping key Internet governance functions.
“The Americans are the fathers and mothers of the Internet, and we have to appreciate that,” said Andrey V. Krutskikh, a Russian Foreign Ministry official. “But words like ‘Internet’ and ‘security’ should not be treated like curse words. They have been treated like curse words by some delegations at this conference.”
In an interview, Mr. Krutskikh expressed frustration that the United States had not budged after Russia made a concession by accepting a mere resolution, rather than actual treaty wording, on the issue of Internet “public policy issues.” The Russian proposal drew broad support from non-Western delegations. The proposal was aimed at reflecting the “reality” that the Internet is a telecommunications service, Mr. Krutskikh said — not, as the United States argued, a form of content that should not be regulated in what is largely a technical document.