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UK and USA Kill Feared Proposals for New ITU Internet Tax and Censorship

Friday, December 14th, 2012 (9:32 am) by Mark Jackson (Score 330)
world wide internet traffic

Proposals for a controversial change to the current International Telecommunications Regulations (ITR), which some country’s fear could have potentially opened the door to a new Net Neutrality busting internet tax or wider online censorship, has been fragmented after the UK, USA and Canada refused to sign the new treaty.

At present the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is supposed to handle many of the issues being discussed at the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). The IGF is a generally open forum that allows everybody from civil society groups to businesses and smaller countries to have a say. By contrast WCIT is a bit harder to access and many countries elected not to include civil society groups into their delegations.

It’s also crucial to point out that the current ITRs only cover telecommunications and are NOT Internet based, although some of the new proposals from countries like China, Russia, Iran and Brazil appeared to open the door to mission creep in their wording. It was widely feared that this could have extended some of the ITRs to introduce international regulations on content filtering and the internet.

A treaty like the one proposed would be mutually binding among all of the relevant signatory countries, which means certain states (e.g. China and its allies) could have potentially gained some justification for attempting to extend local censorship to country’s within their region. The Secretary General of the ITU disagrees.

Dr Hamadoun I. Touré, Secretary General of the ITU, said:

I have been saying in the run up to this conference that this conference is not about governing the Internet. I repeat that the conference did NOT include provisions on the Internet in the treaty text. Annexed to the treaty is a non-binding Resolution which aims at fostering the development and growth of the internet – a task that ITU has contributed significantly to since the beginning of the Internet era, and a task that is central to the ITU’s mandate to connect the world, a world that today still has two thirds of its population without Internet access.

The new ITR treaty does NOT cover content issues and explicitly states in the first article that content-related issues are not covered by the treaty. Likewise, in the preamble of the new text signatory Member States undertake to renew their commitment and obligation to existing human rights treaties.”

Despite these conflicting messages it was clear that the UK and other countries remained concerned about the possibility of mission creep. As the head of the UK delegation, Simon Towle, told the BBC: “My delegation came to work for revised international telecommunication regulations, but not at any cost. We prefer no resolution on the internet at all, and I’m extremely concerned that the language just adopted opens the possibility of internet and content issues.”

Several other countries including Denmark, the Czech Republic, Sweden, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Costa Rica and Kenya were also unable to sign, at least until they could consult with their local governments. As a result the treaty cannot be effectively implemented and appears to have resulted in fragmentation between countries, which is by no means ideal.

The ITU’s Secretary General originally promised that no majority vote would be taken but it did anyway and off the cliff they all walked. Meanwhile the final treaty text does appear to contain a resolution to “instruct the Secretary-General to continue to take the necessary steps for ITU to play an active and constructive role” in internet governance. Make of that what you will.

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