UK and US refuse to sign as UN web treaty is passed

Telecoms officials sign controversial web governance treaty as UK and US officials walk out

Stewart Mitchell
14 Dec 2012

A controversial plan to update a 24-year-old telecommunications treaty to bring the internet under the overall control of the United Nations is in chaos after the US, UK and Canada refused to sign up to a treaty.

The treaty brings the web under control of the International Telecommunications Union, a UN backed body, but has been criticised for giving too much control to officials in countries who could use the treaty to justify censorship and snooping.

According to a report from Bloomberg, the treaty was approved by the majority of members of the ITU, but delegations for the UK, US and Canada walked out, with several other European countries also holding off signing the treaty.

We prefer no resolution on the internet at all, and I'm extremely concerned that the language just adopted opens the possibility of internet and content issues

The talks over the last two weeks have been marred by differences between countries against web regulation and a core of countries pushing for more controls to be in place, including standards that could be used for monitoring web traffic.

"It’s with a heavy heart and a sense of missed opportunity that the US must communicate that it’s not able to sign the agreement in its current form," the US delegation said in a statement after the final changes were adopted. "We candidly cannot support an ITU treaty that is inconsistent with the multi-stakeholder model."

Any country that doesn't agree to the new treaty will continue to be bound by the 1988 version, which doesn't address internet regulation.

Although the treaty will be signed by several countries, it has been watered down, and could cause problems during negotiations in the future.

"It will bring some legal concerns between countries that have and haven't signed the treaty," one South American delegate told the Reuters news agency.

Among the items under discussion were changes that would give governments the right to access international communications networks, a motion that was passed by a vote of 77 to 33, and came under criticism from US and UK delegates, according to Bloomberg.

The US in particular resented the involvement of national officials in a system that has previously been run by multiple stakeholders, many of which are US based.

"A majority of the ITU member states, including many countries that purportedly support internet freedom, chose to discard long-standing international consensus to keep the internet insulated from inter-governmental regulation," Robert McDowell, commissioner at the US Federal Communications Commission, said.

"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."

UK reaction

The UK delegation said it was not prepared to sign up to the deal because it came at too heavy a price.

"My delegation came to work for revised international telecommunication regulations, but not at any cost," said UK delegation head Simon Towle.

"We prefer no resolution on the internet at all, and I'm extremely concerned that the language just adopted opens the possibility of internet and content issues."

It's unclear how the treaty will affect the web in real terms, but as UK delegate Dominique Lazanski told PC Pro, it creates a divide in the way the web will be regulated.

"If a number of countries don't sign it will cause a schism," she said before the conference. "If people can't agree on an effective treaty there will be no common ground going forward."

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