Tech Industry

U.N. summit derailed over human rights controversy

Telecoms summit grinds to halt after China and Algeria object to human rights language, an interruption that follows a vote to give a U.N. agency a more "active" role in shaping the Internet.

China's delegation, shown here at the Dubai summit that ends Friday, cited the "security of the state" when objecting to human rights language.

A United Nations summit suddenly ran aground today after China, Algeria, and Iran objected to a U.S.-backed proposal that would include a mention of "human rights obligations" in a proposed telecommunications treaty.

Algeria's delegate warned at the U.N. summit in Dubai that there were many other nations -- calling them "silent member states" -- that also opposed the human rights language and forced a temporary adjournment of the proceedings.

China criticized the human rights language as well, saying "we also have a very serious question about the necessity of the existence of this text." The "security of the state" is another concern that's equally valid, China's delegate said.

Today's interlude highlighted the deep divisions between the U.S. and its allies and an opposing coalition including China, a rift that led to a vote yesterday to give the International Telecommunication Union a more "active" role in shaping the future of the Internet. The U.S., Sweden, and Finland had opposed that language but lost the vote.

The human rights language is straightforward. One recent version of the document (PDF) says that nations will "implement these regulations in a manner that respects and upholds their Human Rights Obligations."

But Algeria's delegate replied by saying that the language does not have a "rightful place" in the ITU's proposed International Telecommunications Regulations that would become binding on member states. Malaysia's delegate worried that the capitalization of Human Rights Obligations would prove problematic, warning that "the international court system can always find [a way] to alter the variances of these meanings. And especially when you put the H in capital, the R in capital, and the O in capital."

It's no accident that the nations that have been the most vocal in opposition to the human rights language also enjoy some of the most checkered human rights records.

China has been dubbed a "predator" on press freedom. It blocks thousands of Web sites and extensively monitors its citizens' Internet activities. Algeria has censored Web sites critical of the government, monitored Internet chat rooms, and indefinitely banned public demonstrations.

"We think this provision is a very important matter," Sweden's delegate said, referring to the human rights language. "And we support the amendments proposed by the United States. We are not here to develop new human rights language, but to reaffirm previous commitments, while implementing these technical [regulations]."

Algeria's request to adjourn the summit, called the World Conference on International Telecommunications, or WCIT, was backed by Iran's delegate, who said that its government has "full respect for observance of the human rights and declaration on human rights." Nevertheless, Iran said, the language referring to "upholding" human rights commitments is unacceptable: "never -- never can we have such a word in any text [of the regulations]."

U.N. and ITU meetings often result, of course, in more rhetoric than substance. During a U.N. conference in Tunisia in 2005, for instance, Iran and African governments proclaimed that the Internet permits too much free speech, with Cuba's delegate announcing that Fidel Castro believes it's time to create a new organization "which administers this network of networks."

The difference this time is that the ITU summit, which ends Friday, is designed to rewrite the International Telecommunications Regulations (PDF), a multilateral treaty that governs international communications traffic. The treaty was established in 1988, when home computers used dial-up modems, the Internet was primarily a university network, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was a mere four years old.

In a sharply partisan U.S. election year, skepticism about the U.N. process has emerged as a rare point of bipartisan accord: the House of Representatives unanimously approved a resolution last week aimed at sending a strong message to the ITU. It said, in part, that "the consistent and unequivocal policy of the United States [is] to promote a global Internet free from government control."

Google has organized a campaign to draw attention to the summit, saying some governments "are trying to use a closed-door meeting in December to regulate the Internet." Advocacy groups Fight for the Future and AccessNow have launched to warn that the ITU poses "a risk to freedom of expression" online. And Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the World Wide Web, has warned about an ITU power grab.

A ITU document, called DT/51-E (PDF), leaked this week shows that the U.N. agency wants to become more involved in "Internet-related technical, development and public policy issues" -- a broad term designed to sweep in hot-button areas including cybersecurity, spam, surveillance, and censorship.