The UN Is Attempting To “Takeover of the Internet” Right Now Behind Closed Doors

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Conflicting visions for the future of the Internet collide in Dubai.

Eli Dourado is a research fellow with the Technology Policy Program at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a co-founder of WCITLeaks, and a member of the US delegation to the WCIT. The views expressed here are his own.

DUBAI, UAE—In early December, I found myself in an odd position: touching down in Dubai with credentials to attend a 12-day closed-door meeting of the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). It’s a meeting I spent the last six months trying to expose.

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Though the world had been assured that WCIT would not attempt to mount a “UN takeover of the Internet,” that was in many ways what happened. As the conference ended, I watched US Ambassador Terry Kramer abandon months of preparatory work and almost two weeks of intense negotiations to announce, as his words echoed through hundreds of headsets in six languages, that the US simply would not sign the resulting deal.

“Mr. Chairman, as head of the US Delegation, I wanted to start out and thank you for your tireless work and leadership,” Kramer said. “Your personal commitment to a successful outcome here is very impressive. However, I do need to say that 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.”

He went on to say the adopted treaty text was incompatible with the existing multistakeholder model of Internet governance. Internet policy, he said, “should not be determined by Member States, but by citizens, communities, and broader society, and such consultation from the private sector and civil society is paramount. This has not happened here.”

Fifty-four other countries took the same position, drawing sharp battle lines over the Internet and its future governance.

How did a “consensus-driven” UN process that would not, we were told, involve the Internet end up this way?
Sticky wicket

When I first heard about the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) early in 2012, I understood it vaguely as the event at which the United Nations would try to “take over the Internet.” But the experts I met with soon admitted they didn’t know what would happen at the WCIT (wicket, as they pronounced it).

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the UN agency convening the meeting, vigorously denied that the conference would have anything to do with the Internet at all. The purpose of the meeting, claimed ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré, was simply to update the treaty that governs international phone calls; it had last been revised in 1988, when most phone companies were state-owned monopolies. Claims that the conference would implicate the Internet were part of a misinformation campaign pursued by unnamed opponents of the ITU, Touré said. In any case, the ITU was just a convener of the WCIT, and actual decisions would be made by member states on a non-voting, consensus-driven basis. The ITU, it was said, had no agenda of its own.

Because the proposals for the updated treaty stayed secret, however, the public had no way to judge the claims of the ITU and its critics. On a Tuesday morning in June, my colleague Jerry Brito stopped by my office and said, “We have to make a leaks site for WCIT proposals. We can call it WCITLeaks!” Armed with the perfect name, we spent the rest of the day putting together a site where insiders could anonymously upload documents related to the WCIT.

We launched on Wednesday and, within hours, we had our first leak—a draft of the new treaty containing several options for revisions to each provision, including some that addressed Internet issues. The next day, we received the infamous ETNO proposal drafted by European telecom giants, which would have applied the “sender-pays” rule from telephone service to Internet data transfers. A few days later, we posted a compilation of every single proposal that had been made so far.

The increased transparency did have an effect on the ITU. A mere two weeks after we launched our site, Touré announced that he would recommend making WCIT-related documents public—a recommendation largely rejected by the ITU Council, which released a single document that was already available on WCITLeaks. The additional transparency also had an effect on some ITU member states, which simply withheld their most heinous proposals until the conference neared. Not until mid-November, for instance, did Russia put forth its proposed revisions. These contained an entire new article called “Internet.”

by Eli Dourado Via Arstechnica

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