Iran managed to transform Internet access into an internationally recognized “human right” — but, in an unprecedented twist of legal maneuvering thought to be an effort to avoid international sanctions, the Islamic Republic ensured that the right only applies to governments, not ordinary citizens.
Policy experts and government officials familiar with the matter debriefed members of Congress on the results of the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12), which took place in December 2012, at the Tuesday hearing.
While conference leadership had assured concerned delegates from the U.S. and its allies that the conference would not be about the Internet, representatives from Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others repeatedly forced the issue throughout the conference.
“Perhaps most strangely, during the last minutes of WCIT, Iran was successfully able to call for a vote on the adoption of what I understand is an unprecedented treaty provision that creates, in the ITU’s words, a ‘human right’ for governments – not individuals – to access international telecommunications networks despite the imposition of international sanctions,” said Gross, in his opening testimony.
The provision is recognized in the second and third stanzas of the preamble of the newly agreed upon ITRs.
“Member states affirm their committment to implement these Regulations in a manner that respects and upholds their human rights obligations,” it states. “These Regulations recognize the right of access of Member States to international telecommunications services.”
The highly controversial conference had brought together a number delegates from countries around the world, as well as corporations and members of civil society, to debate changes to an international telecommunications treaty that many credit for paving the way for the development and expansion of the Internet – the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs).
Prior to the December conference, the last time the treaty was ratified was in 1988 via unanimous consensus.
“Because human rights are well understood to involve providing rights to individuals,” said Gross, “often at the expense of governments, such a provision turns the concept of ‘human rights’ on its head by creating new rights for governments (not individuals) to avoid international sanctions that are often imposed to help individuals fight repressive governments.”
“Such a provision alone should make the revised ITRs unacceptable to any thoughtful country,” he said.
The U.S., along with 54 other countries — including the U.K., Canada, Australia, Poland, Sweden, Kenya, India and others — did not sign the new treaty, making them bound by the previous version of the treaty.
A total of 89 countries signed the new treaty, including Afghanistan, Bahrain, China, Cuba, Iran, Russia and various African states.
The panelists also spoke about their expectations for the coming years, and the responsibility of Western governments, companies and members of civil society.
Panelists, in addition to Gross, included: FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell; Bitange Ndemo, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Information and Communications for the Government of Kenya; Sally Shipman Wentworth, Senior Manager of Public Policy for the Internet Society; and Harold Feld, Senior Vice President at Public Knowledge.
The new version of the treaty is expected to take effect January 2015.