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Hooray! The UN didn’t take over the Internet after all

ITU Secretary General Dr Hamadoun I. Touré

Good news, everyone: The United Nations didn’t take over the Internet! After two weeks of heated negotiations between 193 member states of the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU), absolutely nothing is different, at least not if you live in the United States. And we have our totally sweet federal government to thank for that – no joke.

U.S. Ambassador Terry Kramer, who led the U.S. delegation at the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai over the past 12 days, announced in a call with reporters Thursday afternoon that the U.S. “cannot sign the ITU regulations in their current form.” A coalition of other Western democracies and other nations, including the United Kingdom and Canada, have also rejected the ITU resolution. Their reason? Because they don’t want to give the ITU or any world governments the power to mess with the Internet.

“It’s with a heavy heart and a sense of missed opportunities that the U.S. must communicate that it’s not able to sign the agreement in the current form,” said Amb. Kramer at WCIT on Thursday. “The Internet has given the world unimaginable economic and social benefit during these past 24 years. All without UN regulation. We candidly cannot support an ITU treaty that is inconsistent with the multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance.”

The rejection of the ITU regulations, a treaty known as the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs), by the U.S. and more than dozen other countries served a death blow to the WCIT, effectively rendering the entire conference a giant waste of time. In addition to the U.S., U.K., and Canada, the other countries that refused to sign the updated ITRs include Costa Rica, Denmark, Egypt, Sweden, the Netherlands, Kenya, the Czech Republic, Japan, New Zealand, Qatar, Serbia, Greece, Finland, and Poland. A total of 55 countries refused to sign the new ITRs.

Of course, many countries did sign the new ITRs – 89 out of the 144 that were eligible to sign – which go into effect in January of 2015. Which begs the question: Won’t that make at least a little difference? Even a tiny bit? Nope. Not really. Still, there were some things we learned from the complete train wreck that was WCIT 2012. Here’s the condensed list.

The rise of a ‘second Internet’

One possible outcome of WCIT is that, because some countries have signed the new treaty and some haven’t, we could see the global Internet fracture into disjointed networks, which operate with different technological standards. The Economist describes the outcome of WCIT as the beginning of a “digital cold war,” with authoritarian regimes that want governments to have greater control of the Internet on one side, and the U.S. and its allies in this fight on another.

Such an outcome is relatively unlikely, says Amb. Kramer. Though he does admit that “anything is possible.”

That said, the World Wide Web is already less than worldwide. Russia has different social networks than the U.S. China blocks websites like Facebook. Iran has long floated plans to create its own national Internet that is disconnected from the rest of us. In other words, nations already have the power to operate on a separate Web to which none of us in the U.S. have access.

Still, says Amb. Kramer, the U.S. and its allies in this fight must be “vigilant” in persuading other countries to not begin “erecting barriers” between themselves and U.S.-based Web companies like Google or Facebook. Whether countries will decide to do that remains to be seen. But because the ITU resolutions formed at WCIT that deal with the Internet are non-biding, “they don’t have teeth in them,” says Kramer.

U.S. Internet companies will not be charged a “tax”

One of the big issues on the table at WCIT was a mandatory business agreement generally known as “sender party pays.” This would have required Web content providers – like Google or Facebook – to pay Internet service providers (ISPs) in other countries for the traffic they send over those networks. “Sender party pays” was removed from the new ITRs, so nobody has to worry about that.

“Spam” is a big deal

The new ITRs gives signatory nations greater ability to regulate the blocking of “spam.” Which sounds good, right? Wrong. As Amb. Kramer explained, regulating “spam” opens the doors to governments regulating “content” on the Web, which could in turn mean the blockage of political dissent or other forms of legitimate speech that are crucial to democratic society. This was one of the top five reasons the U.S. and other nations did not sign the ITRs.

No one-size-fits-all for cybersecurity

Another major point of contention were efforts to establish International standards for dealing with cybersecurity issues. “At the end of the day, [cybersecurity] is heavily a regional issue. It’s not a global issue,” said Kramer. He continued: “So then, you gotta ask the question, ‘Why exactly would you want to put terms in a global agreement on cyber?’ And, you know, there’s not a very good answer.”

Some countries just don’t get it

We in the U.S. take the Internet for granted. Using the Web is perhaps the one thing that we all have in common. But such is not the case in developing nations who are still coming to terms with what the Internet and the Web are.

“There are a lot of nations that are still kind of getting their heads around what the Internet is,” said Amb. Kramer, “the opportunity, what are the issues of spam, what are the issues of roaming.” He added that, eventually, countries “will come to the conclusion that [not letting individual governments control the Internet] is the right approach.”

The nightmare isn’t over

While WCIT was expected to be the big conference where the world’s governments would figure all this stuff out, it wasn’t. It failed miserably on that point. However, that doesn’t mean all of this is resolved for good. Smaller meetings of the same nature take place every couple of months. And according to FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell the U.S. faces an “even more treacherous” negotiation of the ITU treaty set to take place in South Korea in 2014 because “[t]hose talks could expand the ITU’s reach even further.”

Pictured: ITU Secretary General Dr. Hamadoun I. Touré, via ITU/Flickr