WCIT bombshell: Russia withdraws Internet regulation push, apparently under ITU pressure

Posted on: Monday, 10th December 2012

In an extraordinary development late last night, Russia and its allies China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates withdrew a radical proposal to overhaul international telecommunications regulations which would have given national governments sweeping new powers to regulate global ICT service providers such as Facebook and Twitter as well as Internet governance.

CommsDay was told by sources that International Telecommunications Union secretary-general Hamadoun Toure personally intervened to persuade the Russians to withdraw their proposal following American threats to walk out of the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai if the revisions were considered for ratification.

In a fast moving night:

  • United States delegation chief Ambassador Terry Kramer denied comments attributed to him by Dow Jones that his country would walk out of the conference if it sought to regulate Internet content. CommsDay has confirmed with Dow Jones that it stands by its reporting.
  • Russia withdrew, without explanation, a proposal with China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates that would massively increase the ambit of international telecommunications regulations to cover almost all telecommunications and Internet activities. The proposal, leaked on Saturday, was disowned by a member of the Egyptian delegation which last night made a strong statement in favour of Internet freedom. This hinted at serious dysfunction behind the Russian-led co-ordination efforts.
  • A steering committee was immediately convened to get the conference, in danger of collapse, back on track. There was reportedly applause in the committee room as progress was made, especially on the detail of who the revised regulations might apply to. However access to the room was blocked by guards. Previously there were concerns that loose wording could extend the ambit of the regulations as far as users of virtual private networks and ham radio operators. The secretive machinations of a working group—the so-called Committee 5—will now apparently give way to open plenary sessions.

Observers tell CommsDay that the radical Russian proposals had the effect of galvanising the conference into action. Although Russia and allies have formally withdrawn their proposed treaty revision, other countries may still attempt to advance some of the main points. Australian delegate Dr Bob Horton is believed to have played a major role last night, chairing an ad hoc meeting attempting to resolve the argument over how Internet traffic is charged. African states and their supporters seek to restore the old voice traffic settlements regime for Internet traffic to provide a revenue source. The result of these efforts was unclear as we went to press 5AM Australian Eastern Summer Time.

CommsDay was told last night that secretary general Toure personally called top Russians and asked them to back off because this would split the conference unproductively. “The head of delegation, considered a young tyro, apparently acted on his own and they shot him down. Partial confirmation is that Toure personally delivered the news to regional meetings before it was announced,” our source said, emphasising this was not officially confirmed.

CommsDay sources say that the US delegation’s hundred-plus members fanned out to meet with almost every participating country in a last ditch effort to block the Russia-led move over the weekend. On sheer numbers, the Russia-led proposal would probably win a majority vote but there is an overriding preference by the ITU to forge a consensus on the eventual outcome.

The alternative was a walkout by the US delegation and potentially some of its core allies. According to the .nxt website, Poland had also threatened to walk from the event. Australia generally supports the US position backing the status quo on Internet governance.

CIVIL SOCIETY OBJECTS: Meanwhile, a group of civil society organisations from the US, Europe, India and Africa has slammed the ITU and WCIT process for a lack of transparency and input from outside groups.

In a letter to the ITU, they state “Now that the conference is in session, we wish to call your attention to three immediate and pressing matters: the lack of any official standing to the public comments solicited prior to WCIT at the ITU’s invitation; the lack of access to and transparency of working groups, particularly the working groups of Committee 5; and the absence of mechanisms to encourage independent civil society participation.”

Dave Burstein & Grahame Lynch