Talks at the World Conference on International Communications in Dubai aimed at updating the UN run International Telecommunications Union’s International Telecommunications Regulations broke down on the last day of negotiations. Despite the hopes of many countries, especially the US delegation, that the ITU would steer clear of attempting to gain control over the internet for itself or member countries, the final treaty would in fact open the door to just such dangers. Thankfully, the US, led by ITU Ambassador Terry Kramer, made it abundantly clear both before and during the convention that no treaty would be signed that allowed greater regulation, interference, or control over the internet. There is near unanimous consent in the US and among many of its allies that multi-stakeholder internet model, largely free from domestic and international regulation, is what has made it so successful.
Despite the knowledge that a successful Conference would be one that stayed away from topics relating to internet regulation and stuck to points of consensus, member nations such as China, Russia, and some Arab nations persisted in pushing proposals containing such objectionable regulatory language. The draft treaty contains language allowing for the regulation of “unsolicited bulk electronic communication,” or spam, by governing bodies. While this may initially sound harmless, such an allowance would require a definition of the content within spam, opening the door for limitations on free expression. Another provision of the draft treaty would define impacted entities as “operating agencies” rather than “recognized operating agencies,” again opening the door for internet regulation as internet service providers and other internet companies such as Google.
Of course such provisions will never take effect in the United States or in the over 80 other countries who refused to sign the treaty. Lacking unanimity and the support of economic powerhouses like the United States, the treaty looks to have little practical effect. While this is good news for Americans and the internet as a whole, the existence of objectionable provisions still places in jeopardy the united, global nature of the internet. Prior to the WCIT’s opening, many high level US officials such as Ambassador Kramer and FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell expressed concern that the enforcement of a non-unanimous ITU treaty could lead to the fragmentation of the global internet. While it remains to be seen how the ITRs will be implemented, if at all, such a scenario is certainly possible and could radically change how the internet operates; potentially bringing about the end of the free, global framework we all now enjoy.
Commissioner McDowell warned that future ITU talks in 2014 could present yet another opportunity for foes of the free and open internet. Such countries and organizations, he argued, are "patient and persistent incrementalists. They will never give up. Nor should we.”