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US Leads Internet Freedom Fighters in Treaty Resistance

US Leads Internet Freedom Fighters in Treaty Resistance

The big international conference to update a dusty telecommunications treaty is over, and it's not quite clear whether it will have any impact on anything. The U.S. and dozens of other countries walked away from a treaty viewed as hindering Internet freedom. A larger number of nations signed, however, and some of them accused the U.S. of being more interested in protecting Google than freedom.

By Erika Morphy
12/14/12 4:17 PM PT

The United States, the United Kingdom and Canada are among the countries refusing to sign a United Nations treaty on telecommunications and the Internet.

Trouble at the World Conference on International Telecommunications began earlier this week when many participants took issue with the way a proposal to encourage governments to expand Internet access was put to vote and then approved.

Many countries, including the U.S., do not want any language referencing the Internet in the treaty. The fear is that some of the proposals, which supporters have billed as empowering nations to fight cybercrime and spam, would in fact lead to Internet censorship and disruptions.

Leave the Internet Out

The conference's original intent was to update a treaty on international telecommunications dating back to 1988, but some countries have argued that it was not the appropriate venue to discuss Internet-related issues.

Terry Kramer, the U.S. ambassador to WCIT, noted that the ITU -- the UN agency that convened the meeting -- had stated previously that this conference was not meant to focus on Internet issues.

"However, today we are in a situation where we still have text and resolutions that cover issues on spam and also provisions on Internet governance," he said in a statement delivered from the WCIT floor.

Many nations also were reluctant to sign the treaty because of language viewed as implying the Internet requires global oversight and regulation.

Some 59 nations declined to sign. However, 90 countries -- among them Iran, China and several African nations -- did ink the treaty, touting the measures it takes to expand online access to impoverished nations and regions.

Status Quo

The censorship issue was a driving force behind many of the refusals to sign, Joel Reidenberg, a professor at Fordham Law School, told TechNewsWorld.

"Basically, all of the major Internet infrastructure Visit the VMware Tech Center players saw the provisions as opening the door to government censorship on the Internet," he said. "That is something the U.S. and other countries are not willing to accept as an IT function."

For the countries that did not sign the treaty, the previous one will remain in force.

It's unclear how effective the new treaty will be, with so many missing signatories.

"I don't see how it could be called successful with so many players not on board," Reidenberg said.

Censorship for Political Purposes

None of that matters to countries that are determined to censor the Internet, said Sean Casto, CEO of Preapps.com.

"Countries that want to censor, like China, will censor regardless of an international treaty," he told TechNewsWorld. "If the Chinese government doesn't approve of a website or news story, it is not able to be viewed in mainland China."

Many of the countries that wish to censor the Internet aren't influenced by democratic principles.

"Sites like Facebook and Twitter have given oppressed people around the world the ability to be heard and know that they are not alone. People -- through social networking sites -- have the ability to organize and to make a change in their countries," he said.

Another Explanation

There are, of course, more nuanced -- and perhaps cynical -- views on why the U.S. and other countries refused to sign the treaty.

"The Internet has, over time, become increasingly controlled by governments everywhere -- including the U.S., UK and others," said Ramesh Subramanian, a professor of computer information systems at Quinnipiac University.

Refusal to sign the treaty could be motivated by the desire to protect the commercial interests of western and northern nations, he told TechNewsWorld.

"This is a fight over content -- what gets to be transmitted over the Internet and how. Content providers such as the Googles and Yahoos of the world -- and their strong lobbying efforts -- played a large role in the U.S.' refusal to sign the treaty, claimed Subramanian.

"This is not to say that the proposed treaty itself is without flaws," he said, "but the main reason for refusal is to make sure our commercial interests are not affected by the UN-based treaty going into the future."


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