x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

What the WCIT fight is about

The World Conference on International Telecoms (WCIT) gathering in Dubai in December attracted controversy before, during and after. Here's why.

The World Conference on International Telecoms (WCIT) gathering in Dubai in December attracted controversy before, during and after. Here's why.

- Before Dubai, the ITU leadership said it would avoid addressing the internet or internet governance, but critics believe it broke this promise. A treaty resolution encourages the ITU to discuss "international internet-related technical, development and public policy issues". The treaty text emphasises the role of the states and excludes academia, industry and civil society from consultations.

- The ITU supposedly operates by consensus only and never takes votes, but it broke its own rule in Dubai. On the second to final day of the conference at about 1.30am, ITU's chairman Hamadan Touré asked for a show of hands to gauge the "temperature of the room", according to one delegate on internet resolution. Many delegates were caught off-guard and voted.

- A resolution appended to the treaty says "all governments should have an equal role and responsibility for international internet governance". Opponents argue this will enable governments to get their hands on the internet.

- Section 5A of the treaty calls for the ITU to regulate "the security and robustness" of the network. The language is vague and can therefore be misused to justify cutting off internet services and threatening freedom of expression. During the negotiations, the US and Europe proposed substituting the word "resiliency" for security, without success.

- The ITU leadership vowed that any treaty would avoid including content travelling over the network. Article 1.1 does exclude content from the scope of the treaty. But Article 5B of the final text discusses how to deal with spam, or what the treaty describes as "unsolicited bulk electronic communications". Since the treaty does not specifically determine what constitutes spam, it can refer to any kind of internet message from tweets to Facebook messages. Deciding whether communications are solicited or not requires the reviewing of content.

- The ITU leadership insisted that internet companies would be excluded from the treaty's scope. However, it was extended to include all "authorised operating agencies", which could be interpreted as including internet companies.

thamid@thenational.ae