89 countries sign treaty, while nearly 50 refuse or adopt ‘wait and watch’

In a sensational development that impacts the Internet, a group of mainly African nations moved and won a resolution accompanied by a set of binding treaty-based International Telecom Regulations (ITRs) at the UN’s World Conference on Internet and Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai.

The move was supported by China, Russia and mostly Arab states.

At the last count, 89 countries had endorsed the global treaty on telecom regulations by Friday, with nearly 45 nations led by the United States, the U.K., the European Union, Japan, Australia and even Kenya, either refusing to sign or buying time to study the proposals.

India, which initially backed the ITRs and the accompanying resolution during a sudden vote, later announced that it would sign the Treaty only after consultation with domestic stakeholders. It is now learnt that the matter will be discussed and approved by the Cabinet. Governments do not have to sign immediately and have until January 1, 2015 to ratify the Treaty.

Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal has been steadfast in maintaining that he prefers a multi-stakeholder consensus-based process for Internet governance and no role for the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in content regulation.

“Since this move has larger ramifications, I believe the matter should be addressed by the Cabinet rather than just one ministry,” Mr. Sibal told The Hindu.

Trust Deficit

During the week, the U.S. and European delegations demonstrated their concern over a related development, past midnight on Wednesday, when China, Russia and other allies succeeded in passing a resolution by a show of hands to include the Internet within the ambit of ITU outside the Treaty text. What started as an exercise “to check the temperature” of the delegates, resulted in the passing of a resolution “with majority” as announced by the WCIT Chair, Mohamed Nasser Al Ghanim, and Director General of the Telecom Regulation Authority of the UAE. Earlier in the week, a formal proposal by Russia and a secret UAE-led proposal supported by Russia and China surfaced, revealing these countries’ plans to bring the Internet under intergovernmental control through the ITU.

Refusing to sign the Treaty, Ambassador Terry Kramer, head of the U.S. delegation, told a room full of 2,000 delegates from 193 countries, that the “United States cannot sign the ITU regulations in its current form.”

Objections from countries which are refusing to sign the Treaty come on four counts. First, the inclusion of the Internet in the resolution, even though it is not a part of the binding text of the ITRs. Second, on Article 5B relating to “unsolicited bulk electronic communication” or spam which is seen as an open door to content regulation since spam is considered content. Third, lack of clarity on which “agency” or entities will be placed under the ITU regulations. And lastly, opposition to the fact that the ITU, an intergovernmental body, should not enter the Internet since it is better served through a transparent, bottom-up multi-stakeholder process.

Review in India

India said it “supports the proposed ITRs and the Resolutions 1, 2, 4 and 5. We support the broad thrust of Resolution Plan 3 regarding an enabling environment for the greater growth of the Internet, particularly its recognition of the multi-stakeholder nature of the Internet and its wider social and economic impact within and across countries around the world.”

Buying time on directions from Mr. Sibal, India stated, “We need to consider the wider ramifications of this Resolution before taking a decision on signing of the ITRs. We would therefore like to undertake necessary consultations at home before announcing our final decision.”

The need for a rethink arose after a call for a sudden vote led by Iran which took most countries by surprise since voting is seen as divisive on such fora. Especially since the move went against ITU General Secretary Dr. Toure’s multiple assurances, including a mid-conference Tweet on December 9, that, “the key to the success of this conference is consensus.”