DUBAI Dec 12 The United States and its allies clashed with a Russian-led bloc in talks over a new United Nations telecoms treaty on Wednesday, threatening a compromise proposal that had aimed to settle thorny issues of how to govern the Internet.
Delegates from about 150 countries have been working at the UN's World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai for the past 10 days to rewrite the International Telecoms Regulations (ITR) treaty that was last revised in 1988 before the advent of the World Wide Web, but divisions between them remained stark as a Friday deadline neared for an agreement.
Some countries have been seeking greater control over the Internet by giving some supervisory powers to the International Telecommunications Union via changes in the treaty, and a majority of countries have appeared willing to officially extend the mission of the ITU, a UN agency, to also cover the Internet.
But after making hopeful noises on a compromise on Tuesday, the United States, Europe, Canada and other countries hardened their position on Wednesday and sought to exclude any language in the treaty that could open the door to more government regulation of cyberspace.
A draft compromise that circulated on Tuesday had sought to keep most references to the Internet in a non-binding companion "resolution" outside the treaty's main regulations, with the approach meant to solve some of the toughest issues such as how to define what kinds of companies could be touched by the rules -- pure telecoms operators or a broader group of interests such as Google and Facebook.
The ITU usually agrees decisions by consensus, although this time it could come down to a vote, which may leave the United States and its allies in the minority.
"The ITU has put off the biggest problems until the last day. Maybe this approach will work, but it strikes me as a stupid strategy," said Kieren McCarthy, who runs .Nxt, an information service that specialises in Internet policy.
The balance struck by the conference chairman on Tuesday included one provision deemed most likely to impact the Internet, a clause that would allow countries the right to control "addressing," which some understood would include Internet addressing, which is currently managed by the U.S.-based non profit-making organisation ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers).
The Americans and Europeans said on Wednesday that was unacceptable, while the opposing camp said that clause was the only remaining element of what they had pushed for.
U.S. Ambassador Terry Kramer tweeted that work would continue around the clock, but added: "The U.S. remains committed to keeping the Internet out of the ITRs."
That drew expressions of exasperation from some other countries such as Saudi Arabia.
"It's unacceptable that one party gets everything they want whereas everyone else has made concessions," a Saudi delegate told the conference.
"The compromise seems to be falling apart right in front of our eyes," a Russian delegate told the conference.
Russia, along with China, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and some other countries, on Tuesday resubmitted a joint proposal calling for a massive extension of state supervision of the Internet.
This has not been debated as delegates instead tried to work through the compromise text, but with this bloc failing to secure any significant concessions from the U.S. camp, both Russia and Saudi Arabia both made oblique threats to resurrect their proposal.
"The Russians can always say they want to discuss their proposals - they haven't done so yet because they hope to achieve their aims through the compromise text," said a European delegate.
"This is their nuclear bomb and they don't want to use it, but they will if they have to."
In addition to the Internet governance issues being debated, some countries began pushing for an explicit commitment in the treaty that no country be allowed to unilaterally deny another country access to communications networks. Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan and Cuba advanced the argument because of concerns that hostile countries could cut off them off from the rest of the world in using cyber-attacks.
Other countries including the United States said such an approach would be too political and argued it should be addressed by the United Nations directly, not the ITU.