WCIT dramas: Arab states outraged at last minute US attempts to change draft ITRs

Posted on: Thursday, 13th December 2012

Draft forms of proposed new International Telecommunications Regulations suggest that the United States and allies have largely won their case for minimal change, with many of the more extreme proposals to expand government ambit over the Internet from Russia, China and the Arab States denied a look-in.

Delegates to the World Conference on International Telecommunications spoke of a “gentleman’s agreement” they believed had been reached that would move things along yet, as drafts reached the main plenary session, disputes broke out that are not resolved as we go to press. At the same time, US FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell told a lunchtime meeting in Washington DC last night Australasian time that the US saw WCIT as “in a state of flux.”

24 delegates representing the six major regions of the world—Africa, Asia Pacific, Russia and former Soviet states, Europe, the Americas and the Arab States—worked through the day and evening hours to come up with a form of words acceptable to all, even meeting on the conference stage during the lunch break to make progress.

Head of the Australian delegation, Keith Besgrove, expressed confidence to CommsDay that enough consensus would be found to prevent a late night session tonight (Thursday) but the disputes have slowed progress. Most have been provoked by the United States’ refusal to countenance compromise text, even to the point where some Western allies were expressing frustrations with its actions in the conference venue.

NAMING POWERS OPPOSED: The long-brewing conflict over Internet governance broke out in the open last night when the United States and supporters Australia, Poland, Sweden, the Czech Republic opposed draft text which would hand powers over “naming” management to national governments, seen as a de facto way to nationalise Internet governance that is currently outside the remit of the ITU.

The draft looked worse in other languages, with Mexico reporting that the translated Spanish draft would hand “control” to national governments. The event is now moving so fast that interpreters and translators are struggling with the demands.

This fuelled frustrations among the Arab states, whose own proposals to expand the ITR remit to the Internet have largely been ignored. Saudi Arabia’s delegate said: “we are tempted to go back to our initial demands. What we said we wanted at the beginning of the conference, it is unacceptable that one party to the conference gets everything they want and everybody else must make concessions and after having made many concessions, we are then asked to suppress the language which was agreed to. I think that that is dangerous. We are on a slippery slope, Mr. Chairman.”

Sensing a major storm, the plenary then convened for an afternoon coffee break, where representative delegates negotiated new wording which would specify the clause pertained to telecommunications naming only, for example in the case of X.25 networks and other signal and non-Internet data protocols. CommsDay observed American delegates dotted throughout the venue working hard on lobbying African nations to their side.

The plenary reconvened at 5pm Dubai time (midnight AEST) only for hostilities against the US and allies to re-emerge. Russia said the treaty “seems to be falling apart in front of our eyes,” sentiments backed by Bahrain and Algeria.

Later Russia said the proposed ITR text would limit the right of states to exercise sovereign control over their own territories: “We can’t stick our hands in the sand like an ostrich and say we don’t know what the Internet is because that just isn’t going to go down at all.”

Sentiments that the US had largely won the battle through use of a de facto veto became apparent in morning plenary sessions yesterday when Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran raised arguments over the inclusion of human rights clauses and a preferred American definition of how to define the term “operating agencies” to who the regulations would apply. The US was keen to make a last minute amendment to emphasise that the regulations applied only to “public correspondent” agencies, or telcos as are commonly recognised, wanting to avoid a more general definition that may capture private networks. This caused considerable consternation with some African and Arab states who were confused by the implications of the “correspondent” term.

ITU Secretary General Hamadoun Toure pleaded for acceptance of the draft text in comments made before the plenary lunch break yesterday. He said the informal overnight meetings with regional representatives “did a lot of massaging of these documents. And we came to compromises — and we came to (Dubai to) compromise. And compromise is not of course a glass full for anybody. I think it’s a win/win compromises that are throughout the text that we see here. We gained some and won some and lost some. That was the spirit of the compromise. So I would urge you to make sure that you don’t reopen those agreed texts, so that we can go along in a balanced way that is not hurting anyone.”

SECURITY CONCERN: Nevertheless, the disputes flared again late last night as Australia, US and Europe attempted to change the wording of draft text on network security by adding the term “technical infrastructure” in order to avoid potential coverage of content under state remit.

This prompted the host nation, the United Arab Emirates, to spit the dummy, with its delegate stating “It seems to be that all the effort that you (the chair) and the Secretary General have been doing for the last few days, it seems to be gone. It\’s useless now. Sorry to say, because whatever that we have agreed on that one, we have compromised a lot, and now this is not a compromise. It\’s a compromise of a compromise. If it is like this, Mr. Chairman, it seems to be that we don’t agree to change any single word in this one, any single word.” The UAE called for its Internet regulation proposals, lodged Friday with China, Russia and other Arab states only to be withdrawn Monday, to be formally restored for consideration.

China, which previously had acted in concert with the Asia Pacific Tele-community on security, was also unimpressed saying a lot of discussion and compromise had resulted in the draft security article. It agreed with the UAE that no further amendments should be made.

The imbroglio was such that the plenary was again suspended at around 7.30pm local time to allow ad hoc meetings of regional representatives to take place to find a solution. The chair was forced to extend the meeting session until 1.30am in order to make up for time.

ROAMING MEASURES APPROVED: Meanwhile there was progress last night on measures creating international telecom regulations over mobile roaming for the first time. The articles approved by the plenary provide for measures to ensure transparency and competition in international roaming prices.

Grahame Lynch & Dave Burstein

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