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U.N. summit's meltdown ignites new Internet Cold War

New geopolitical rift isn't east-west or north-south: it roughly tracks commitment to free expression. The U.S., Canada, Europe, Japan, and their allies are now facing off against the likes of China, Russia, Libya, Nigeria, and dozens of other nations.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
6 min read
Delegates to the Dubai summit at last Friday's closing ceremonies, after the U.S. and other nations had refused to sign the treaty.
Delegates to the Dubai summit at last Friday's closing ceremonies, after the U.S. and other nations had refused to sign the treaty. ITU

news analysis When the history of early 21st century Internet politicking is written, the meltdown of a United Nations summit last week will mark the date a virtual Cold War began.

In retrospect, the implosion of the Dubai summit was all but foreordained: it pitted nations with little tolerance for human rights against Western democracies which, at least in theory, uphold those principles. And it capped nearly a decade of behind-the-scenes jockeying by a U.N. agency called the International Telecommunication Union, created in 1865 to coordinate telegraph connectivity, to gain more authority over how the Internet is managed.

It didn't work. Backed by nearly a million people and some of the engineers responsible for creating the Internet and World Wide Web, the U.S. and dozens of other western democracies rejected the Dubai treaty. That dealt a serious blow to an alliance of repressive regimes -- led by Russia, China, Algeria, and Iran -- that tend to lack appreciation of the virtues of a traditionally free-wheeling Internet.

That rejection formalized a new geopolitical rift. "This conference was never meant to focus on Internet issues," said ambassador Terry Kramer, head of the U.S. delegation to the Dubai summit. "The Internet has given the world unimaginable economic and social benefit during these past 24 years -- all without U.N. regulation."

Washington quickly applauded its negotiators' decision. The Federal Communications Commission's Robert McDowell, a Republican, called it an ITU "power grab" and said the U.S. delegation "stood strong for Internet freedom." FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, a Democrat, said the U.S. "simply could not sign such a treaty," and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, warned it was time to stand against nations that want "greater control over the Internet in order to restrict or censor it for political or cultural reasons."

The new Internet political divide isn't east-west or north-south. Instead, it roughly tracks national governments' commitment to free expression and other human rights: the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, India, the Philippines, and Japan did not sign the Dubai treaty (PDF). They're joined by some Latin America and African nations including Chile, Peru, Malawi, Gambia, and Costa Rica.

Of the ITU's 193 member states, 89 have signed the treaty so far, putting the total at a little under half. Signatories include Russia, China, Libya, Nigeria, Iran, Cuba, Cambodia, and Egypt.

There's a chance that the Dubai summit could have been salvaged if the discussions remained focused on items unambiguously within the ITU's mandate, such as maritime telecommunications and balance of payments for telephone calls.

Delegates from Burundi, which signed the treaty.
Delegates from Burundi, which signed the treaty. ITU

But ITU chief Hamadoun Touré and Mohamed Nasser al Ghanim, the summit's chairman, pushed to insert language dealing with regulation of "unsolicited" Internet communications and cybersecurity. In addition, a resolution appended to the treaty says "all governments should have an equal role and responsibility for international Internet governance" and formally expands "the activities of ITU in this regard."

That amounts to a direct challenge to the traditional way the Internet is governed, which is primarily by ICANN, the organization that manages Internet domain names and addresses, and by protocols created by groups such as the Internet Engineering Task Force and the World Wide Web Consortium. It also suggests that topics related to Internet speech and surveillance could be put to a majority vote of ITU's 192 member countries, many of which have less-than-favorable views toward human rights. Two-thirds of the world's nations, according to Reporters Without Borders' ratings, suffer from significant "problems" with press freedom.

To list some examples: China, which boasts the world's most extensive Internet censorship regime, proposed Internet eavesdropping recommendations using deep packet inspection that the ITU adopted last month. In 2008, CNET disclosed that the ITU was drafting technical standards, also proposed by the Chinese government, to define methods of tracing the original source of Internet communications.

It's also telling that when a proposal surfaced in Dubai last week to include a brief mention of "human rights obligations" in the treaty, dozens of nations balked. China criticized the language, 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. Malaysia was worried that capitalizing Human Rights Obligations would make them seem too important.

"We will not vote on any issues"
Touré, the ITU chief, had promised in advance that the Dubai summit would not be Internet-focused, and would work by consensus.

"In the true tradition of the ITU, we will not vote on any issues," Touré told reporters over the summer. "Voting means winners and losers, and this is not simply acceptable. And we believe that we'll come to an agreement on all of the issues." Touré had said this month that the summit "is not about Internet governance."

But when the treaty expanded to include cybersecurity and the content of Internet communications, the U.S. and its allies felt they had walked into an ambush.

"We all agreed that content was not intended to be part of the ITR, but content issues keep coming up," the U.K.'s delegate said last week. "Unfortunately, the language that we proposed and the various alternatives we proposed were constantly rejected."

Another sticking point was procedural: instead of working by consensus, a vote to give the ITU a more "active" role in shaping the Internet's future took place at 1 a.m. local time last Thursday. (After the adoption of the proposal, Spain's delegate raised an objection, saying "had we known that it was a vote, we might very well have acted differently.")

The world's five Internet address registries, which assign blocks of IPv4 and IPv6 addresses, published a statement over the weekend that criticized the ITU for secrecy and for violating its own promises to summit attendees: "Neither the content of this conference, nor its conduct during this critical final period, have met community expectations or satisfied public assurances given prior to the event."

For his part, Touré said in a statement after the summit that the event "succeeded in bringing unprecedented public attention to the different and important perspectives that govern global communications." He added, in what could be viewed as a swipe at the U.S. and other countries that refused to sign the treaty, "there is not one single world view but several, and these views need to be accommodated and engaged."

Large bureaucracies tend to discover justifications for expansion, of course, and the U.N. constellation of agencies is no exception.

At a 2004 summit at the U.N.'s headquarters in New York, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan criticized the current system through which Internet standards are set and domain names are handled -- namely ICANN, IETF, W3C, and so on -- and delegates from Cuba, Ghana, Bolivia and Venezula objected to what they said was too much control of the process by the U.S. government and its allies.

Two years later, at another U.N. summit in Athens, then-ITU Secretary General Yoshio Utsumi criticized the current ICANN-dominated process, stressing that poorer nations are dissatisfied and are hoping to erode U.S. influence. "No matter what technical experts argue is the best system, no matter what self-serving justifications are made that this is the only possible way to do things, there are no systems or technologies that can eternally claim they are the best," Utsumi said.

In an interview with CNET at the time, Houlin Zhao, director of the ITU's Telecommunication Standardization Bureau, was blunt about his agency's interest in expanding its mandate: "The ITU is trying to ensure its value. Any public network of communications is naturally of interest to ITU."

The ITU's problem is, as law professor David Post put it, that the Internet "arose and spread across the entire globe without any ITU oversight or involvement whatsoever." Worse yet, from the perspective of the ITU, its own set of technical standards, called the OSI protocols, developed in the 1980s, were largely rejected in favor of the Internet's lingua franca of TCP/IP.

Last week's summit is likely to spark calls for ITU reform -- or even its abolition. Andrew McLaughlin, former deputy chief technology officer in the Obama administration, recently said the ITU "should be killed off in its current form" because its "nature, structure, culture, values and processes...are all inimical to a free and open Internet, and they are all inconsistent with the nature of the technical infrastructure that now characterizes our communications networks." Anthony Rutkowski, a consultant who was previously a counselor to two different ITU secretary-generals, told CNET last week that the ITU is "the most failed body in the history of international telecommunications."

Significant reform is unlikely. So is the prospect of the ITU abandoning its bid to expand its authority over Internet governance. The next summit in the new Internet Cold War will take place in Busan, Korea, in November 2014. McDowell, the FCC commissioner, is already warning: "The United States should immediately prepare for an even more treacherous ITU treaty negotiation that will take place [then]. Those talks could expand the ITU's reach even further."