In 11th-hour announcement, US, UK and Canada decline to sign UN Internet treaty

Josh Peterson Tech Editor
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The United States and several of its allies announced Thursday they will not sign an international treaty that threatens to give the United Nations greater control over the Internet.

The treaty, which isn’t legally binding and allows member countries to maintain their national sovereignty, would help countries coordinate initiatives to fight spam and broaden Internet access. It is being considered at the 12-day World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai, which was organized by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to revise a key decades-old communications treaty.

But in an 11th-hour announcement late Thursday evening, U.S. Ambassador Terry Kramer, who serves as head of the U.S. delegation to the conference, categorically said the U.S. will not sign on.

“I do need to say that it is with a heavy heart and a sense of missed opportunities that the U.S. must communicate that it is not able to sign the agreement in the current form,” Kramer said. (RELATED: U.N. delegates affirm right to freedom of information online)

“Internet policy should not be determined by member states but by citizens, communities, and broader society, and such consultation from the private sector and civil society is paramount,” Kramer added. “This has not happened here.”

The 193 member states of the ITU in attendance at the Dubai conference have articulated two different visions for future of the Internet, with the majority of countries voicing support for increased government involvement in Web.

During a media call Thursday following his announcement, Kramer told reporters that, given that many countries are interested in the positive commercial impact the Internet could have on their domestic economies, the U.S. hopes these countries in the long term will be attracted to the benefits of an open Internet and liberalized markets.

The new version of the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) is set to take effect January 2015, and Kramer said that between now and then, countries agreeing to sign the treaty might have “buyer’s remorse.”

ITU spokesman Sarah Parkes had told The Daily Caller on Wednesday that member states prefer to operate on consensus.

But during the middle of the night Wednesday evening, a groundswell of international support prompted WCIT-12 Chairman Mohammed Al Ghannim from the United Arab Emirates to propose a resolution for the secretary general of the U.N. to “continue to take the necessary steps for ITU to play an active and constructive role in the multi-stakeholder model of the Internet.”

Kramer told TheDC during the media call that Al Ghannim brought the conference to vote on the Internet resolution to move the conference along.

“Some of what’s happening [is] the views on these issues are so heartfelt and so significant, and it slowed down a lot of the negotiations,” Kramer said.

“I think the bigger issue is that there are a variety of nations out there that do hold different views than our own, and we’re going to have to continue to engage so that we don’t find that that continues to be an area of disagreement,” he said.

The U.K. and Canada, as well as several other countries, will also not sign the treaty on Friday.

Dr. Hamadoun Toure, secretary general of the ITU, denied that the new version of the treaty includes provisions that would affect the regulation of the Internet.

“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,” Toure said.

Kramer said during the media call, however, that addressing spam is a form of Internet content regulation.

In a statement following the U.S. announcement, FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, who had been a leading voice in raising awareness about the issues at stake at this year’s conference, said that by “agreeing to broaden the scope of the ITU’s rules to include the Internet, encompassing its operations and content, these nations have radically undermined the highly successful, private sector, non-governmental, multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance.”

McDowell said that even though the U.S. is not planning on signing the treaty, it could have “ripple effects here at home,” and warned of an upcoming ITU conference in 2014 to be held in Korea that could expand the ITU’s reach even further.

“Freedom and prosperity are at stake,” said McDowell, warning of the damaging effects a newly “internationally politicized Internet” could have on consumer prices and innovation.

“Let’s never be slow to respond again,” he said. “Freedom’s foes are patient and persistent incrementalists. They will never give up. Nor should we.”

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