It is effectively a political issue masquerading as a technology issue revolving around the the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which is an agency of the United Nations. Membership of the ITU is open to national governments and telecommunications companies – and it is the involvement of the national governments in the ITU that could potentially disrupt the status quo. That status quo is disliked by emerging and loosely termed ‘totalitarian’ states, both because it is seen to give the US too much control over the internet and because it makes content difficult to control.
It isn’t easy to understand the details. Some nations are seeking national control over their national parts of the internet – but they already have that, and already use it. Russia simply blocks websites it doesn’t like, Iran is reportedly developing a separate internal internet, China operates its national firewall, and Pakistan switches Twitter off and on when it wishes. But an international treaty formally giving them that right would legitimize the process, making censorship and content surveillance easier and more prevalent; and many worry that it would hasten further fragmentation of the existing world wide internet.
As a result, the US sought to remove ‘governance’ from the discussions, and while the ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré predicted that light-touch Internet regulation would emerge from the conference by consensus, that isn’t going to happen. The conference is now racked with bitterness and recrimination. Problems came to a head on Wednesday night/Thursday morning when delegates were discussing an alternative resolution, that the UN agency's leadership should “continue to take the necessary steps for ITU to play an active and constructive role in the development of broadband and the multi-stakeholder model of the internet.”
This was opposed by the US and Europe – but conference chairman Mohammed Nasser al-Ghanim defied convention and called for a non-binding show of hands. The West felt ambushed by a majority vote; and it all went downhill from there. "It's with a heavy heart and a sense of missed opportunities that the U.S. must communicate that it's not able to sign the agreement in the current form," said Terry Kramer, the US representative according to Reuters.
"My delegation came to work for revised international telecommunication regulations, but not at any cost," said the head of the UK delegation Simon Towle. "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,” reports the BBC.
From the ‘other’ side, “Maybe in the future we could come to a fragmented Internet," Russian delegate Andrey Mukhanov, told Reuters. "That would be negative for all, and I hope our American, European colleagues come to a constructive position.” The United Arab Emirates was even more forthright, claiming it had been double-crossed by the US bloc. "Unfortunately, those countries breached the compromise package and destroyed it totally," said Tariq al-Awadhi, head of the Arab States' delegation. "We have given everything and are not getting anything.”
But it’s not over yet. The FCC’s Robert McDowell issued a statement yesterday. “Today,” he said, “America’s delegation to the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), led by Ambassador Terry Kramer, stood strong for Internet freedom when it proclaimed that it would not sign new international rules that capture the Internet.” He concluded, adding that ‘freedom’s foes are patient and persistent incrementalists,’ “The United States should immediately prepare for an even more treacherous ITU treaty negotiation that will take place in 2014 in Korea. Those talks could expand the ITU’s reach even further.”