U.S. officials refuse to sign new U.N. telecom treaty

Osamu Honda/AP file photo

Concerns over Internet control prevailed.

American officials announced on Thursday they won’t be signing an international telecommunications treaty because of concerns it condones government control of the Internet.

A team of about 100 U.S. negotiators have spent the past two weeks at a meeting of the United Nations International Telecommunications Union in Dubai. Officials had feared that countries such as Russia could use the negotiations over international telecom regulations to extend government rules to cover the Internet.

Such changes were kept out of the binding portions of the new treaty, but a majority of the countries chose to include statements on Internet governance in a nonbinding resolution, Ambassador Terry Kramer, who led the U.S. delegation, told reporters on Thursday.

“The U.S. cannot sign the revised telecom treaty in its current form,” he said.

Countries that favor expanding the regulations to the Internet will likely sign the new treaty on Friday, but America won’t be a signatory. “We cannot be part of that consensus,” Kramer said.

The United States and some other countries objected to proposals that would have expanded the regulations to cover things such as cybersecurity and spam. 

The objectionable portion of the treaty will not be binding on the U.S., and the countries that want more government control of the Internet already take such steps.

Despite deciding not to sign the treaty, Kramer painted the two weeks of negotiations as a success because the binding portions remain limited to traditional telecom networks. U.S. officials also succeeded in defeating proposals that could have changed the way Internet companies pay for traffic.

American trade groups, companies, and policymakers were less than pleased.

While praising the U.S. delegation, Republican Federal Communications Commissioner Robert McDowell said the new trend, if unchecked, will harm investment and innovation in the Internet.

“Even though the United States refused to sign the new agreement, what happened today in Dubai could have ripple effects here at home,” he said in a statement. “Consumers everywhere will ultimately pay the price for this power grab as engineers and entrepreneurs try to navigate this new era of an internationally politicized Internet.”

The Internet Association, which represents companies including Google, Yahoo, and Facebook, criticized the U.N. for moving “under the cover of darkness” close to regulating the Internet.

“The ITU efforts tonight may forever alter the free and open multistakeholder governance model under which the Internet has thrived,” the group said in a statement.

Both the House and Senate passed resolutions calling on the U.S. to oppose any effort to expand U.N. regulation of the Internet.