UK and US reject global telecoms treaty over internet 'power grab'

By Graeme Burton
14 Dec 2012 View Comments
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The UK, the US, Australia and a number of other countries have refused to sign a new international telecommunications treaty after the final text was pushed through in a "forced" vote.

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They claim that the final text would extend a measure of oversight of the internet to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which is part of the United Nations. At best, argue opponents, that would put the internet under progressively more bureaucratic regulation. At worst, they say, it would enable the internet to be controlled by repressive governments as the ITU is governed by majority votes.

"It's with a heavy heart and a sense of missed opportunities that the United States must communicate that it's not able to sign the agreement in the current form," said US delegation leader, Ambassador Terry Kramer, at a special press conference on Thursday evening.

"Other administrations have continually filed out-of-scope proposals that ultimately altered the nature of the discussions and the ITRs [international telecommunication regulations]... The internet has given the world unimaginable economic and social benefit during these past 24 years. All without UN regulation," he added.

Kramer had warned earlier in the week that the US might walk out if a number of governments, led by Russia and China, sought to use the ITRs to bring the internet under any form of UN/ITU control.

The US was formally supported by the UK, Costa Rica, Denmark, Sweden, the Czech Republic, New Zealand, Canada, Australia and Poland in opposition to the draft treaty.

The issue, though, was forced by a bloc of African nations' governments' attempt to have a "right" to access telecoms network written into the treaty. Specialist Australian communications newsletter Commsday had a journalist at the event:

"The crisis erupted... when the African bloc attempted to have its preferred form of words over the rights of member states to access telecommunications networks accepted in the treaty. The US and other allies saw the language as an unambiguous attempt to open the ITRs up to governance and content regulation.

"Iran took the unprecedented step of calling for a vote, against the oft-stated intentions of the ITU to forge a consensus on the ITRs. The vote was won 77-33 by the African bloc with six abstentions. This caused instant backlash from the US and its allies."

"The US then immediately declared it would not sign the treaty."

While the draft treaty did not contain direct references to the internet, the final drafts did prioritise "government communications", and contain measures to prevent the propagation of spam. Activists had feared that any such measures would hand a de facto grounds for repressive governments to interfere in the running of the internet within their geographic boundaries.

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