In a stunning repudiation of a United Nations summit, an alliance of Western democracies including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada today rejected a proposed treaty over concerns it hands repressive governments too much authority over the Internet.
"This conference was never meant to focus on Internet issues," said ambassador Terry Kramer, head of the U.S. delegation to the Dubai summit. "The Internet has given the world unimaginable economic and social benefit during these past 24 years -- all without U.N. regulation."
Delegates from the Netherlands, New Zealand, Denmark, Sweden, the Philippines, Poland, and the Czech Republic also said they could not sign the proposed International Telecommunication Union treaty, which is scheduled to be finished by tomorrow. Kenya's delegate appeared to take the same position, saying "we reserve our rights" to "go back home and do more consultations" before signing, and India has signaled it agrees with the U.S. position. Japan's delegation said it needed to consult with Tokyo before proceeding.
The implosion of the high-profile ITU summit came late in the evening in Dubai after deep divisions became apparent over the mere mention of "human rights obligations" in the treaty -- a proposal that China and Iran opposed -- and whether the U.N. was the proper organization to oversee key decisions about how the Internet should be managed. Currently groups including the Internet Engineering Task Force and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, fulfill that role.
"We all agreed that content was not intended to be part of the [treaty], but content issues keep coming up," the U.K.'s delegate said, adding that the ITU, a U.N. agency, is not the "proper place" to address Internet-related issues.
Canada said it was forced to reject the proposed treaty because of its commitment to an Internet "in which people are free to participate, communicate, organize and exchange information."
A united front from at least a dozen nations, especially the United States, has likely doomed the entire summit, which was convened to draft a new treaty, unless a competing alliance including China and Algeria are willing to offer a dramatic last-minute compromise. ITU secretary general Hamadoun Touré said in September that "no proposal is going to be passed if it does not have very wide support from all involved."
It's no coincidence that the nations that have been the most vocal in opposition to the human rights language also enjoy some of the most checkered human rights records.
China has been dubbed a "predator" of press freedom. It blocks thousands of Web sites and extensively monitors its citizens' Internet activities. Algeria has censored Web sites critical of the government, monitored Internet chat rooms, and indefinitely banned public demonstrations.
The polite language of international diplomacy would prevent the alliance of western democracies from saying this directly, but a key concern is that putting topics related to Internet speech and surveillance to a majority vote of ITU's 192 member nations may not end well. Many delegates to the ITU summit have less-than-favorable views toward Internet freedom: two-thirds of the world's nations, according to Reporters Without Borders's ratings, suffer from significant "problems" with press freedom.
U.N. and ITU meetings often result, of course, in more rhetoric than substance. During a U.N. conference in Tunisia in 2005, for instance, Iran and African governments proclaimed that the Internet permits too much free speech, with Cuba's delegate announcing that Fidel Castro believes it's time to create a new organization "which administers this network of networks."
The difference this time is that the World Conference on International Telecommunications, or WCIT, which ends tomorrow, was designed to rewrite the International Telecommunications Regulations (PDF), a multilateral treaty that governs international communications traffic. The treaty was established in 1988, when home computers used dial-up modems, the Internet was primarily a university network, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was a mere four years old.
In a sharply partisan U.S. election year, skepticism about the U.N. process had emerged as a rare point of bipartisan accord: the House of Representatives unanimously approved a resolution last week aimed at sending a strong message to the ITU. It said, in part, that "the consistent and unequivocal policy of the United States [is] to promote a global Internet free from government control."
Today's implosion counts as a victory for an alliance of civil liberties groups and Internet companies, which had spent the last few months warning of what could happen if the Dubai summit veered in the wrong direction.
Google organized a campaign to draw attention to the summit, saying some governments "are trying to use a closed-door meeting in December to regulate the Internet." Advocacy groups Fight for the Future and AccessNow launched WhatIsTheITU.org to warn that the ITU poses "a risk to freedom of expression" online. And Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the World Wide Web, warned about an ITU power grab.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat whose district includes the heart of Silicon Valley and who was a key figure in opposing legislation such as the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, released a statement this afternoon saying: "There are countries and groups who wish to exert greater control over the Internet in order to restrict or censor it for political or cultural reasons. We need to stand firm against those kinds of threats if we want the Internet to continue as a vibrant engine for innovation, human rights, cultural and economic growth."
Last updated at 4:00 p.m. PT