How the UN's 'Game-Changing' Internet Treaty Failed

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German delegates on the fourth day of the 12-day-long World Conference on International Telecommunications (ITU/Flickr)

Did you know that, for the past two weeks, the future of the Internet has been at stake?

Yes, it has. Those two weeks hosted the World Conference on International Telecommunications (also hosted, technically, by Dubai). And they hosted, as well, a fairly dramatic face-off -- often between blocs led by Iran, Russia, and China and blocs led by the United States, the UK, and Canada. The purpose of the summit? To rewrite a multilateral communications treaty (official name: International Telecommunications Regulations) that has been the official governing document of the Internet since the late 1980s. The treaty, if passed with a meaningful consensus, could have significantly altered the way the Internet is governed -- and, therefore, it could have significantly altered the Internet itself.

But go ahead and exhale: Late last night, a faction led by the United States walked out of negotiations, refusing to sign the treaty. "It's with a heavy heart and a sense of missed opportunities that the US must communicate that it's not able to sign the agreement in the current form," Terry Kramer, the U.S. ambassador to the summit, put it. "The internet has given the world unimaginable economic and social benefit during these past 24 years."

So what went down last night -- and what does it mean for us, the users of (and reliers on) the Internet? Here's a guide.

So what was the treaty?
One of the stated goals of the document was to help nations coordinate efforts to fight against spam -- and to widen their access to the web. But many of the summit's discussions ended up questioning whether countries should have equal rights to the development of the Internet's technical foundations -- an extension of the original, stated purpose of the document.

Why was it deemed necessary?
The age of our current governing treaty, most obviously. The current communications treaty that governs Internet communications was last overhauled 24 years ago, in 1988 -- basically hundreds of years ago, in Internet Time.

Who proposed it?
UN's International Telecommunication Union (ITU) organized the 12-day conference in order to make the changes.

Who refused to sign it?
More than 80 countries -- among them the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada.

So why didn't they go for it?
Much of it came down to the idea that the content of the Internet, rather than its regulation alone, was at stake in the treaty's language. And some of it had to do, as well, with governance -- in particular, the idea that the U.S. government should get to determine which decide which body should regulate the Internet's address system as a legacy of its funding for ARPANET. (The U.S. says that this structure allows its experts to make "agile, rapid-fire decisions" about the Internet's development, maintaining that any other system might be used for purposes of censorship, interference in the operation of ISPs, and the interruption of U.S.-run operations like Google and Facebook.)

But didn't they know about all that from the beginning?
Yes and no. It seems that many of the aspects of the treaty that proved most objectionable to some delegates weren't introduced until later in the game. And the breaking point, per the BBC, was the addition of text relating to "human rights." A proposal from Russia, China, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan, for example, -- one calling for equal rights for all governments to manage "Internet numbering, naming, addressing and identification resources" -- was proposed during the proceedings. And then eventually shelved.

Later, an African bloc of countries began calling for a paragraph to be added to the treaty's preamble that would similarly relate to "human rights." (Proposed language: "These regulations recognize the right of access of member states to international telecommunication services.")

But, I mean, human rights! What's wrong with that?
Again: "human rights." The U.S. and its allies suggested that the proposals weren't about the rights of countries' citizens, but rather the rights of their governments to regulate their use of the Internet. They viewed the Russian/Chinese/Saudi Arabian/African proposals, therefore, as a semi-veiled attempt to extend the treaty's regulations to cover Internet governance and content -- regulation of content being, from an open-web perspective, pretty much the worse thing you can do to the Internet.

So how did they end up actually walking out?

After a break for sleep, Iran called for a vote on the African proposal -- this despite the ITU's earlier promise that disputed issues would be resolved by consensus, rather than a majority vote.
When the vote was carried by 77 to 33 in favor of the proposal, the U.S., the UK, and Canada said they could no longer ratify the treaty. As Simon Towler, the head of the UK delegation, put it: "My delegation came to work for revised international telecommunication regulations, but not at any cost. We prefer no resolution on the Internet at all, and I'm extremely concerned that the language just adopted opens the possibility of Internet and content issues."

Were there others opposed to the treaty? 
Yes, many. And not just countries. Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee -- two of the founders of the Internet and the World Wide Web, respectively -- came out strongly against its ratification. Google ran an adamant campaign against the treaty and the process that wanted to overhaul it, declaring, "A free and open world depends on a free and open Internet. Governments alone, working behind closed doors, should not direct its future."

What about the other countries involved? 
Many of them basically half-refused to sign. Delegates from Chile, Costa Rica, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Italy, Kenya, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, and Sweden essentially voted "present": Though they didn't flat-out refuse to sign, they also said that they'd need to confer with their national governments -- ""consult with capital" -- about how to proceed. 

But what about the other countries?
Many of them, including Russia, Iran, and Qatar, supported the treaty -- and, this morning, the remaining members of the ITU (which is made up of 193 countries), signed it. But, as Forbes's Elise Ackerman points out, given that so many major players refused to ratify the document, "the gesture in many ways was hollow."

Why's that, exactly?
Because, like other UN agencies, the ITU derives its power from consensus. Without that -- without buy-in from its members, particularly its more powerful ones -- any treaties under its auspices are extremely difficult to enforce, and therefore largely meaningless.

So what does that mean for the countries that did sign?
Despite this setback, the ITU's secretary-general, Dr. Hamadoun Toure, insisted that signing countries would enjoy benefits including "increased transparency in international mobile roaming charges and competition." He also stressed, however, that the treaty did not address content-related telecommunications -- a note to which effect has also been added to the final text of the treaty. 

What does this mean for the ITU?
Toure tried to put a positive spin on the proceedings: "History will show," he said, "that the conference has achieved something extremely important. It has succeeded in bringing unprecedented public attention to the different and important perspectives that govern global communications." Which, okay. But this was a loss, and an embarrassing one, for the ITU. As Ackerman put it, "the collapse of negotiations around the treaty update exposed the ITU as woefully out of step with the most technologically advanced sectors of the global society." 

What does this mean for the rest of us?
It means, basically, that we won't see much change in how the Internet is currently run, at least when it comes to international regulations. But the treaty's defeat as a matter of consensus might also have more far-reaching implications for how the world gets together to regulate (or not regulate) the Internet. Closed-door sessions are in some ways at odds with the ideal -- and, for the most part, the reality -- of a free and open Internet. The ITU debacle was, on top of everything else, a reminder of that.