WASHINGTON (AP) — Secret negotiations involving dozens of countries
preparing for a United Nations summit on international telecommunications
could lead to changes in a global treaty that would diminish the Internet’s
role in economic growth and restrict the free flow of information.
The U.S. delegation to the World Conference on International
Telecommunications to be held in Dubai in December has vowed to block any
proposals from Russia and other countries that they believe threaten the
Internet’s current governing structure or give tacit approval to online
But those assurances have failed to ease fears that bureaucratic tinkering
with the treaty could damage the world’s most powerful engine for exchanging
information, creating jobs and even launching revolutions, according to
legal experts and civil liberties advocates who have been tracking the
discussions. Social networks played a key role in the Arab Spring uprisings
that last year upended regimes in Egypt and Tunisia.
Russia, for example, has proposed language that requires member states to
ensure the public has unrestricted access and use of international
telecommunication services “except in cases where international
telecommunication services are used for the purpose of interfering in the
internal affairs or undermining the sovereignty, national security,
territorial integrity and public safety of other states, or to divulge
information of a sensitive nature,” according to a May 3 U.N. document that
details the various proposals for amending the treaty.
The wording of this provision could allow a country to repress political
opposition while citing a U.N. treaty as the basis for doing so. The
provision also appears to contradict Article 19 of the U.N. Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, which says people shall have the right to
access information “through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
An amended treaty would be binding on the United States if it is ratified by
the Senate. But approval is not automatic. The treaty is sure to be
scrutinized by lawmakers wary of its potential impact.
The U.N.’s International Telecommunication Union, which oversees the treaty,
does not operate like the U.N. Security Council, where the United States has
the power to veto resolutions to which it objects. The ITU works on a
consensus basis. Proposals can be stopped from serious consideration if
enough countries voice their objections. More than 190 nations will attend
the Dubai conference and the U.S. delegation is seeking support for its
positions at the preparatory meetings that will continue until the
“It is important that when we have values, as we do in the area of free
speech and the free flow of information, that we do everything that we can
to articulate and sustain those values,” Philip Verveer, deputy assistant
secretary of state and U.S. coordinator for international communications and
information policy, said in an interview.
The drafting and debating of proposals in preparation for the Dubai
conference have taken place largely behind closed doors. Public interest
groups have criticized the process and said it runs counter to development
of sound public policy. In response to calls for transparency, two research
fellows at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center launched the website
WCITLeaks.org earlier this month as a way to make documents that have been
leaked to them by anonymous sources available publicly.
The negotiations have sparked rumors that the U.N. and the ITU are plotting
to take control of the Internet from the loose coalition of nongovernmental
organizations that establishes Internet policies, standards and rules, they
said. The ITU’s secretary general, Hamadoun Toure, has called the takeover
The ITU said the preparatory process is open to all member states as well as
hundreds of private sector and academic organizations. The member states,
not the ITU, determine the rules of participation and are free to share
documents and information as they see fit, the agency said in an emailed
The treaty, known formally as the International Telecommunications
Regulations, was developed in 1988 to deal with global telephone and
telegraph systems that were often state-run. The conference in Dubai, which
is being held by the ITU, will be the first time in 20 years that the treaty
is being opened for revisions.
Independent organizations, including the Internet Society, the Internet
Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers and the Worldwide Web Consortium,
for years have served as the Internet’s governing bodies. They handle core
tasks like network and domain name administration and make decisions based
on input from the public and private sectors. This system allows the
Internet to evolve organically and rapidly to changes in technology,
business practices and consumer behavior, according to open Internet
Yet countries still grappling with how communications have been transformed
by the Internet view the ITU and the treaty as the best avenues for plugging
themselves into the global information economy. For developing nations that
don’t have an effective broadband infrastructure, bureaucratic and
regulatory measures can allow them to benefit financially from the traffic
that crosses their borders.
But treaties are static instruments that often are unable to adapt and
adjust to the fast pace of Internet innovation, said Sally Shipman
Wentworth, senior manager for public policy at the nonprofit Internet
Society. “Further, we do not believe that we should simply take the 1988
regulatory model that applied to the old telephone system and apply it to
the Internet,” she said.
A proposal offered by a European association of telecommunications network
operators would put pressure on content providers such as Google, Facebook
and Netflix to offset the costs of delivering Internet traffic to end-users.
Traffic increasingly includes bandwidth-hungry video, and the proposal from
the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association essentially
argues that the investment needed to expand and improve the transfer of data
should be borne by the operators and the content providers.
Verveer called the proposal unworkable and said it would have unintended
consequences, such as blocking Harvard, MIT and other universities from
putting courses online at no cost to users in places where access to
education is already limited. “If it became necessary to pay in order to
make these courses available, they would predictably become less available,
which would be very unfortunate,” he said.
The threat to Internet freedom won’t come in the form of a “full-frontal
assault,” Roger McDowell, a Republican member of the Federal Communications
Commission, said at a congressional hearing last month, “but through
insidious and seemingly innocuous expansions of intergovernmental powers.”
His warning resonated with members of the House Energy and Commerce
communications and technology subcommittee.
Several lawmakers questioned Verveer, who also testified, and McDowell about
the relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Toure, the
ITU’s secretary general. Their fear is that Putin, who long has pushed for
centralized control of the Internet, will use his allegedly close ties to
Toure to accomplish that goal. Toure, a native of Mali, received advanced
degrees in electronics and telecommunications from universities in Moscow
“Is this relationship a concern?” asked Republican Rep. Greg Walden, the
subcommittee’s chairman. “What steps are we taking to be able to
counterbalance that relationship?”
Verveer told Walden he has no doubts about Toure’s honesty and fairness.
But McDowell struck a more ominous tone. Putin’s “designs” need to be taken
very seriously, he said, and urged proponents of Internet freedom to be on
guard for “camouflaged subterfuge” that could threaten the Internet’s