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UN telecoms talks FOUNDER as US, UK, Canada and Aussies quit

Let's not talk about the internet - but we had to

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WCIT2012 The ITU's new binding treaty on regulating the internet and global communications is effectively dead in the water after Western nations including the US, UK, Canada and Australia refused to sign it.

With these world powers out of the game and free of the treaty, the ITU agreement looks rather pointless: the vast majority of the planet's internet systems are based in the Western world, particularly the US, and they aren't obliged to obey the new pact. They can operate on their own terms.

The American delegation has already headed home from the negotiations; later perhaps as many as a hundred countries may sign up, but they will be predominantly minor powers. However depending on whether India signs, this could account for a majority of the world's population: just not the world's online population.

It remains unclear if this split is the first skirmish in an escalating war between factions fighting to seize the reins of the internet.

At the centre of the debate at this month's World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) are the International Telecommunication Regulations, a legal agreement defining how nations should exchange communications: it lays out the rules and tariffs. Google and the EU accused the UN - through its International Telecommunications Union - of using the treaty negotiations to effectively regulate and run the internet. The ITU has denied these allegations.

But the conference did witness a plot to take over the internet: there were efforts to increase governmental control over communications or at least lay the groundwork on which such control could be based, but it never stood any chance of succeeding. The idea that web freedom stood on the brink is as credible as the suggestion Jack Bauer foiled the censorship bid.

Member states signing the new treaty today will cooperate on managing spam and agreeing interconnect rates. The countries that have refused to sign up have signalled they're happy to let private companies, mostly based in the West, to run the internet for better or for worse.

The existing ITU treaty, under which international roaming and phone interconnection contracts are agreed, was written in 1988 and is horribly out of date. That treaty runs until January 2015 and its replacement has been the subject of two weeks of negotiation in Dubai. Negotiations over the new pact broke down last night when the US, closely followed by the UK and the majority of Western powers, stated that it would not be signing.

Whether the Americans ever intended to sign is a discussion for another day, but by taking an active role in the negotiations it was able to water them down enormously and prevent any of the more-Orwellian clauses getting included in the treaty, which it won't be signing anyway.

Most of the nine pages that make up the treaty - which comes with 14 pages of appendices - are pretty benign, covering important but dull things such as who pays whom and when; taxes should only be levied in the country in which the bill is issued; callers should pay roughly the same rate regardless of the routing; operators only get two months to query invoices from other operators; and so on and so forth. But even within these comfy sections there are clauses that could be interpreted as having a chilling effect.

A good example is Article 5B on spam, which proved surprisingly divisive:

Member States should endeavour to take necessary measures to prevent the propagation of unsolicited bulk electronic communications and minimize its impact on international telecommunications services.

We all hate spam, but the Americans wouldn't have this in the treaty as it affects the content of the communications: to the US even a Skype call is content, user-generated content but still content, and the treaty forbids any governmental control over "content".

But more interesting were the objections to the word "unsolicited". How could an operator know an email was unsolicited, critics asked, without looking at it? And before we know it we've very nearly mandated deep-packet inspection of private citizens' net activities.

That's typical of the stringent examination to which every letter of the treaty was exposed, and why there was never any chance of the ITU, or any other UN body, taking control of the internet. There were even more controversial proposals, some of which may have been used to legitimise greater control over the flow of information, but they never stood a chance of passing and were no more than bargaining chips in a game of poker the US refused to play.

The problem is that the world needs the ITU - it publishes telecommunications standards - and the world needs a treaty governing how operators deal with each other. Developing countries need it more as they're at risk of predatory pricing and abuse by international carriers that are all but a cartel, not to mention protection from each other. Developed countries also need it if they're going to interconnect peacefully.

Writing a treaty on telecommunications without mentioning or indirectly referring to the internet has proven impossible over the last two weeks of negotiations, so one is forced to ask what the alternative is and if it will prove any more palatable. ®

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