Future Tense

Did the U.N. Internet Governance Summit Actually Accomplish Anything?

Terry Kramer, U.S. ambassador to the World Conference on International Telecommunications 2012, speaks in August 2012

Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GettyImages

The latest battle over the Internet ended in an éclat. On the final day of the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai, representatives from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and several other countries walked out in protest of an attempt by countries such as Russia and Iran to extend governmental control over the Internet. Rather than reaching an accord, the world remains as divided on Internet governance as it was when the summit opened.

After nearly two weeks of negotiations between some 1,600 diplomats from 151 states, the conference derailed on Thursday. The key dividing issue was the most fundamental—whether the International Telecommunications Regulations treaty would be revised to cover the Internet. (Such a move could have given the U.N. body jurisdiction over a range of Internet governance functions that are currently left to international NGOs.) Eventually, the head of the U.S. delegation, Ambassador Terry Kramer, announced that “the U.S. is not able to sign the document in its current form.”

There were several other reasons for the United States and its allies to spurn the treaty. Even though no explicit mention of the Internet was added, a controversial reference to “unsolicited bulk electronic communication,” usually called spam, made its way into the final text. The major concern there was that it could be a backdoor for authoritarian governments to control content. Moreover, the spam reference implicitly suggests the treaty could cover the Internet, since spam is a particularly Web-related issue. There was also heated debate over adding a reference to human rights in the treaty’s preamble. Finally, confusion and concern surrounded a bizarre chain of late-night events that led to the apparent adoption of non-binding resolution pushed by countries trying to extend governmental control over the Internet.

Those that signed the revised treaty (89 countries, says the Huffington Post) will have to adhere to it once has been ratified domestically. Those that refused (80 countries, according to Forbes, although since only 151 countries were present in Dubai, the exact numbers are still unclear) will continue to be bound by the original 1988 text. This means we face a splitting international-law headache. The legitimacy of the revised treaty is on shaky ground due to the lack of consensus. But the ratifying countries are bound by it and will therefore be playing by a different set of rules than those that rejected it. And despite the fact that not all countries recognize the changes, repressive countries could try to exploit some of the vague language in the final text to justify their current censorship practices.

Ambiguity aside, the controversial summit had at least one upside. ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Toure said late Thursday, “History will show that this conference has achieved something extremely important. It has succeeded in bringing unprecedented public attention to the different and important perspectives that govern global communications.”

WCIT was only the latest in a series of ongoing international debates over Internet governance. Next May, the World Telecommunication Policy Forum will take place in Geneva. And the preparatory process for the 2015 World Summit on the Information Society will also gear up in 2013. At these forums and elsewhere, stakeholders will grapple with issues including affordable access, cyber-security threats, and spam. And there is the institutional challenge of how to scale or change existing organizations to adequately represent Internet users around the world.

It may be tempting to interpret the post-WCIT divide as a type of “digital cold war” pitting the United States and its allies against Russia and China. But a key difference separates Internet policy from traditional diplomacy: This debate is not reserved for governments. Governments are only one set of actors in Internet governance, and civil society groups and the private sector have traditionally played a critical role—not to mention the academics and engineers who drove the Internet’s evolution in the first place.