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Three little words stall UN's 'bid for INTERNET DOMINATION'

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WCIT2012 Time is running out for the world to agree on a new ITU treaty, which will define how countries communicate electronically with each other. The daylight is failing and three words still present immovable barriers to consensus - unless the chairman can magic them away. Meanwhile, voting guidelines are starting to circulate.

At the heart of the debate at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) are the International Telecommunication Regulations, a binding global treaty defining international connectivity: it lays out the rules and tariffs for exchanging information from nation to nation, and how the technology can be specified and regulated. Google and the EU believe the UN - through its International Telecommunications Union - will use the treaty negotiations to effectively seize control of the internet. The ITU has denied these allegations. Now the whole confab is boiling down to agreeing on the meaning of three simple words.

Everyone at the conference in Dubai is opposed to voting on such matters as it only complicates the implementation of the communications pact. Instead, they would prefer to all agree on absolute definitions of three perfectly normal English words.

The words in question are "security", "content" and "public" in the context of exchanging data in a standardised manner - you might imagine you could define those yourself easily enough, but if you could do so to the satisfaction of the delegates at WCIT then you'd be possessed of sophistry beyond mortal man.

"Security" might seem simple. A clause stating that governments have a responsibility to the security of their national networks has upset the American delegation - "security" can mean many things as well as robustness, integrity and reliability. So new language has to be found and that's the easiest of the three.

"Content" may be king, but in this context it's a killer. Everyone agrees that a web page like this one is content, but what about a Skype call, or a phone call, or a billing record, or routing tables? Do they count as content? Governmental support might be desirable for the last few: even America has common-carriage requirements and a fund to help the disconnected, so it depends on how one defines the word, which in turn depends on how one wants to define it, which is where the problems start.

Last up is "public", as in "public network", which again sounds simple and the treaty has various resolutions which apply to "public networks". But America considers every network used by private citizens to be public and government networks should be private, so that's another rub.

Writing an international agreement without using "public", "security" or "content" is a significant challenge and one at which the mass meeting has failed. So the congress chairman has gone off for a little think, no doubt accompanied by lobbyists for the bigger interests, and promises to come back this evening with a treaty that everyone can get behind, which will, quite frankly, be a bloody miracle.

If he fails, which seems most likely, the the ITU will have to choose between a vote and abject failure.  A vote will involve almost all the member states opting out of clauses to which they object, or think they could object, which won"t leave a lot (even the clause saying member states should bear Human Rights in mind has proved divisive), and begs the question of what the ITU is really for beyond publishing technical specifications.

A question which some of those who've been attacking the organisation for the last few months will be delighted to ask. ®

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