Now that the fuss around the ITU's World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) has died down a little participants and observers alike are beginning to ask themselves what happened? Was the Internet saved? Was it under threat in the first place? By I.D. Scales.
One thing's for sure: they won't find an answer to those questions by asking the ITU itself. We journalists always expect a good dose of spin and positive gloss on any event from its organiser, it just comes with the territory and large doses of sodium chloride are usually applied. But the ITU is in a class of its own.
The wrap-up press release distributed at the end of the conference, is straight out of the Kim Jong-il school of public relations and seems to be describing some parallel event in an alternative universe.
"New global telecoms treaty agreed in Dubai," it shouts. "World Conference on International Telecommunications forges solid new framework for tomorrow’s hyper-connected world."
No it wasn't and no it didn't.
The release goes on to list the WCIT's triumphs: disability accessibility; a clause on the right to freedom of expression over ICT networks; harmonised emergency numbers; price transparency for global roaming and provisions on energy efficiency.
The central, screaming fact: that the conference exposed a global schism over the Internet and for this reason the US, most of Europe and a few surprise countries hadn't actually hadn't signed up, was only vaguely indicated.
There were "tough issues that provoked considerable debate," and there were regrets that "some countries have so far declined to ratify the treaty", but the document concludes on an upbeat note with Toure being confident "that these new ITRs will pave the way to a better, more connected world and a more equitable environment for all.”
So how does the schism that hasn't officially happened, actually look?
It's far more than just a few countries not having got around to signing the treaty. As things stand nearly a week later the numbers are thus (from the official WCIT website):
It is true that some of the non-signatories have indicated that they're consulting back home and haven't decided whether to sign or not yet (so it's possible the signatories will increase and the gap widen).
At this point it's important to remember that each country, no matter how small, gets a vote and is counted as a signatory. So there's Andorra and Luxembourg at one end and the US and China at the other, all counted as equal signatories.
One criticism heard around this point is that the Russia/China/Arab bloc were assiduous in cultivating support from the many small countries who have become skilled in exacting a price for cooperation in these sorts of fora (diplomacy, I think it's called).
No doubt other small countries were similarly influenced by the US/EU bloc to vote in the opposite direction.
As you might expect, therefore (despite China being in the 'other' camp) in terms of global population (rather than just numbers of countries) the split is slightly more even.
Signatories' populations total 3.83 billion.
Non-signatories populations total 2.56 billion.
Looking at the split on a world political map (here
), to my mind gives an even more equal split with the big open spaces of Canada, US and Australia tipping the balance towards the US/Europe bloc. This is immaterial, just interesting.
As to why the conference ended as it did, even those who were there are still arguing about that. For the literally-minded it's a puzzle. The US and its allies were assured by the ITU general secretary, Hamadoun Toure, that the scope of the treaty would not include the Internet. So it's possible to argue that as the core ITRs (the International Telecommunications Regulations) didn't make explicit mention of the Internet the objecting nations could have signed up. Why didn't they?
Because of that word 'scope'. The Internet regulatory aspirations all went into a 'non-binding' resolution included in the signed agreement and so it pointed in the direction of the ITU gaining some Internet control in the future. For the less literally-minded, reading between the lines, the fight was clearly going to go on using the 'Resolution' as a starting point. The ITU's assertion (above) that the event and the agreement was a great success, "paving the way for a more connected world", if it means anything at all, must indicate a long-term aspiration to play a major part in Internet governance.
But the underlying reason for the collapse at the end of the conference was an accumulated lack of trust in the process. Those countries holding out against Internet regulation felt they were being railroaded when they had all been assured that consensus would rule. Consensus and trust were both starting to fray at the edges by the final Wednesday.
My own feeling is that, given all the controversy and fears of double-dealing, US WCIT ambassador Terry Kramer knew he couldn't arrive back in Washington waving a piece of paper and intoning "Peace in our time". Such was the pitch of feeling in the US against the ITU and its so-called "power grab" that signing any treaty with a hint of compromise on Internet governance - even in the form of a non-binding 'resolution' - would have been branded a sell-out by political partisans. The fine distinction between the ITRs and a 'Resolution' just wouldn't have washed and the safe thing for Kramer to do was to fight the treaty to a standstill and still not sign anything, just in case the small print hid a couple of nasties.
So for the US - and to a lesser extent its allies in Europe and elsewhere - signing wasn't really a practical option.
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