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UN's 'bid to wrestle control of internet' stalled by asterisk

Consensus by exhaustion remains best hope for ITU treaty

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WCIT2012 It is day eight of the World Conference on International Telecommunications, the ITU conference that has Google so panicked, and more than 600 delegates are locked in debate over the significance of an asterisk with no compromise in sight and time running out.

The ITU conference is debating the International Telecommunication Regulations, a binding global treaty on international connectivity and communications. The ITU was accused of using the meeting to grab control of the internet, a claim the UN's communications agency denies.

It is quite an important asterisk, one which seeks to clarify which organisations come under the ITU's remit, and it falls at the bottom on page two of the final treaty that all parties are still hoping to sign on Friday.

So failure to agree on the text attached to it, or on whether the asterisk should be there at all, is critical even before the parties can start agreeing what regulation should be applied. There are already plenty of impassioned pleas for compromise - from the other side obviously.

The 24-year-old treaty has been produced over the last 10 days through rounds of discussion and negotiation, with every comma, semicolon and full stop discussed at length, but none so much as this asterisk.

The final few days are supposed to involve "massaging of the text" rather than any fundamental changes, but with so many countries involved that was optimistic at best. The Japanese delegation suggested it was time for everyone to have a massage, to widespread laughter which only demonstrates just how torpid the process has become.

The footnote which is generating such discussion tries to clarify what is meant by "operating agencies", to which the ITU treaty will apply. The US delegation is adamant that such agencies should be limited to, effectively, the "last mile" - traditional telcos providing telephony and internet access - but some have suggested that the treaty should be expanded to include companies operating over the internet, which is where the controversy comes in.

Skype, for example, is not a telco but one can create a convincing argument that it should be regulated as one (required to provide 999 calls, lawful intercept, etc) which could put it within the remit of the treaty being thrashed out here in Dubai.

The footnote itself is attached to the phrase "operating agencies" and currently reads:

* authorised or recognised by a Member State to establish, operate and engage in international telecommunications services to the public

... which is recognisably the result of negotiated compromise, and there is palpable frustration from WCIT Chair Mohamed Nasser Al Ghanim as he (again) reminds the assembled that they've only got a day and a half to hammer out the the treaty. The Americans want to add the word "correspondence" to the note, and Panama joins them in calling for it to be incorporated in the text (the "Anti-asterisk Alliance" we shall call them) while UK rep Simon Towler limits himself to agreeing wholeheartedly with whatever it was the Americans just said.

If this issue is resolved quickly then there's still hope of a signing on Friday, but if the other 22 pages prove a tenth as controversial as the first two then that might not happen. The ITU can make decisions by vote, but doesn't because (in the words of the general secretary) someone always loses a vote, and while small countries might be browbeaten into acceptance, the bigger players all have an effective veto - even if that means the whole process is tripped up by an asterisk. ®

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