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Governments Boycott the New Internet Rules of the ITU

It’s been a whirlwind week at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) negotiations as member states scrambled to reach some kind of consensus on the updates to the ITU’s telecom rules by the deadline. As we’ve noted before, some states are intent on using the negotiations to expand the powers of the ITU and legitimize undemocratic practices like Internet surveillance and censorship. Internet content regulation isn’t within the current scope of the ITU’s powers, and some nations like the U.S. and Canada have been strongly resisting any language that expands these powers. That all changed this past week, with a ‘temperature-taking’ (not a ‘vote’, but sort of might have actually been a vote) on a new resolution to “foster the enabling environment for the greater growth of the Internet.” Access explains that this appeared to be an attempt at compromise, where “all references to the internet would be cut out of the actual text... on the condition that this resolution passed instead.” However this shift towards explicitly recognizing the authority of the ITU over Internet content led Canada, among many nations, to refuse to sign the final draft of the treaty.

The Week’s Negotiations

To understand how this all came about, we have to look back at previous two weeks’ fraught negotiations. Last week we posted about the approval of new standards that would allow for ‘deep packet inspection,’ or the ability to examine the content of Internet traffic. This caused some friction because of the clear potential to use these standards for surveillance and censorship. According to telecom industry news source Commsday, the head of the American delegation Ambassador Terry Kramer promised to veto any proposals that threatened content.

Then last Friday the proposal we’ve been worrying about was finally put forward by Russia, the United Arab Emirates, China, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. The proposal—currently being referred to as RUCASS—requires changes to the ITU rules that would give governments new powers to regulate global telecommunications service providers such as Facebook and Twitter.

In the ensuing furor it seemed like the negotiations might implode. Commsday reported that U.S. representatives threatened to walk out of the negotiations if the proposal was considered, although Ambassador Kramer has since denied this. Egypt, one of the initial members of the RUCASS delegation, disowned the proposal and came out instead in favour of Internet freedom. Russia then withdrew the proposal, following pressure from the ITU Secretary General and the Chairman of the negotiations.

In an attempt to restore order, Access reports that Chairman Mohammad Al-Ghanim worked “with the heads of regional groups to draft a new consensus text based off the work of Committee 5, which may be the base treaty text for negotiation”. The Committee managed to suppress this negative proposal, but this also meant that the negotiations, already lacking in public input, were pushed behind another set of closed doors.

The ‘Internet Resolution’ and the Final Draft

The conflict centres around disagreement over the scope of the ITU’s powers, with the U.S. blocking the expansion of ITU power to include Internet content by avoiding any language that goes beyond the treaty’s initial scope. In comparison to the RUCASS proposal, the chairman’s decision to ‘take the temperature of the room’ over the ‘Internet resolution’ is a minor development, but it’s still concerning because it explicitly establishes “a role for the ITU as a forum for discussion of internet policy into the future”.

Canadian representatives voiced their opposition to an ITU-governed Internet, stating that “[t]he current multi-stakeholder, private sector–led model promotes innovation and the development of new digital industries”. They felt that “the final treaty text tabled in Dubai included provisions that threaten these freedoms.” Canada, along with the U.S., Britain, Norway and Australia refused to sign the final treaty. A list of countries who have signed the final text can be found here.

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