Earlier this Month, the U.S. and many Western nations rejected a proposed revision to the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) organized by the International Telecommunications Union of the United Nations. The White House issued a statement on Dec. 21st in which it explained the rejection of the proposed treaty amendments because the ITU regulation of Internet governance would lead to greater governmental regulation of access to the Internet and the content available online. As the statement explained, “the Internet’s social and economic benefits come from the free flow of information and ideas and that the technical innovation enabling this information flow comes from the full engagement of civil society, industry, and governments in the process.”
At the same time, however, it is important to recognize that the treaty was adopted, 89 states did sign onto the revised treaty, signaling a strong split among nations regarding the nature of Internet governance. Mohamed al-Ghanim, chairman of the WCIT commented “I hope that the 55 states that said do not want to sign the treaty, or need to hold consultations, to think again.” Ghanim is the chief of the UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority. The treaty is not binding on the non-signatory countries.
The tension over the ITU treaty amendments which had been focused on expanding broadband to greater parts of the globe highlight the growing tension over the role of Internet access as part of human rights protections. Countries such as Russia and China see control over Internet content within their borders as a fundamental issue of sovereignty while U.S., E.U. and other government coalitions view Internet content as a fundamental human right. In July of this year, for example, the U.N. Human Rights Council passed a resolution that “affirms that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice.”
The ITU vote suggests a growing of the Cyber Cold War in which historical East/West divisions are reemerging behind firewalls rather than the physical walls of the twentieth century. As in the past, the various U.N. bodies and commissions are split as to their allegiance and ineffectual in their pronouncements.
While the constant threat of cyber-attacks against governmental computers has become a constant occurrence in almost every country, the ITU vote signals a more explicit acknowledgement of the regulatory rift among nations. For governments seeking to manage the information available to their citizens or control the publications by their citizens, the open nature and growing penetration of the Internet represents a fundamental challenge to governmental control. The ITU vote reflects this tension and provides a roll call for the nations seeking greater transparency and those seeking greater control. Transparency is behind in the vote – 55 to 89.