Total Pageviews

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Looking for Meaning in Walking Out on the Internet Treaty

Message, if Murky, From U.S. to the World


Terry Kramer led the United States delegation in Dubai.

At the global treaty conference on telecommunications here, the United States got most of what it wanted. But then it refused to sign the document and left in a huff.

What was that all about? And what does it say about the future of the Internet - which was virtually invented by the United States but now has many more users in the rest of the world?

It may mean little about how the Internet will operate in the coming years. But it might mean everything about the United States' refusal to acknowledge even symbolic global oversight of the network.

The American delegation, joined by a handful of Western allies, derided the treaty as a threat to Internet freedom. But most other nations signed it. And other participants in the two weeks of talks here were left wondering on Friday whether the Americans had been negotiating in good faith or had planned all along to engage in a public debate only to make a dramatic exit, as they did near midnight on Thursday as the signing deadline approached.

The head of the American delegation, Terry Kramer, announced that it was “with a heavy heart” that he could not “sign the agreement in its current form.” United States delegates said the pact could encourage censorship and undermine the existing, hands-off approach to Internet oversight and replace it with government control.

Anyone reading the treaty, though, might be puzzled by these assertions. “Internet” does not appear anywhere in the 10-page text, which deals mostly with matters like the fees that telecommunications networks should charge one another for connecting calls across borders. After being excised from the pact at United States insistence, the I-word was consigned to a soft-pedaled resolution that is attached to the treaty.

The first paragraph of the treaty states: “These regulations do not address the content-related aspects of telecommunications.” That convoluted phrasing was understood by all parties to refer to the Internet, delegates said, but without referring to it by name so no one could call it an Internet treaty.

A preamble to the treaty commits the signers to adopt the regulations “in a manner that respects and upholds their human rights obligations.”

Both of these provisions were added during the final days of haggling in Dubai, with the support of the United States. If anything, the new treaty appears to make it more intellectually challenging for governments like China and Iran to justify their current censorship of the Internet.

What's more, two other proposals that raised objections from the United States were removed. One of those stated that treaty signers should share control over the Internet address-assignment system - a function now handled by an international group based in the United States. The other, also removed at the Americans' behest, called for Internet companies like Google and Facebook to pay telecommunications networks for delivering material to users.

Given that the United States achieved many of its stated goals in the negotiations, why did it reject the treaty in an 11th-hour intervention that had clearly been coordinated with allies like Britain and Canada?

In a Dubai conference call with reporters early on Friday, Mr. Kramer cited a few remaining objections, like references to countering spam and to ensuring “the security and robustness of international telecommunications networks.” This wording, he argued, could be used by nefarious governments to justify crackdowns on free speech.

But even Mr. Kramer acknowledged that his real concerns were less tangible, saying it was the “normative” tone of the debate that had mattered most. The United States and its allies, in other words, saw a chance to use the treaty conference to make a strong statement about the importance of Internet freedom. But by refusing to sign the treaty and boycotting the closing ceremony, they made clear that even to talk about the appearance of global rules for cyberspace was a nonstarter.

It may have been grandstanding, but some United States allies in Europe were happy to go along, saying the strong American stand would underline the importance of keeping the Internet open.

A version of this news analysis appeared in print on December 15, 2012, on page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: Message,If Murky, From U.S. To World.