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Yes, the new ITRs do cover “content” and the “Internet”

ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré insists that the proposed UN treaty doesn’t cover the Internet or content issues. He’s wrong.

The World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) has largely collapsed over an impasse between a bloc led by Russia, Algeria and Iran, who want the ITU (the telecommunications arm of the UN) to play a greater role in the internet, and a bloc led by the United States, who don’t.  In an attempt to salvage whatever he can of the meeting—as the US and its allies all announce they will not sign the treaty—Dr Touré released a statement insisting that “the new ITR treaty does NOT cover content issues” and “did NOT include provisions on the Internet” (emphasis in original). Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

The problem lies in articles 5A and 5B of the new treaty, and in plenary resolution 3.  Articles 5A and 5B say:

[5A] Member States shall individually and collectively endeavour to ensure the security and robustness of international telecommunications networks…

[5B] Member States should endeavour to take necessary measures to prevent the propagation of unsolicited bulk electronic communications…

In order for these not to be “content”-related, you have to take a very narrow view of the definition of “content”. If Dr Touré meant that the ITRs don’t, for example, mention a ban on pornography, he’s correct. But content still ties in with 5A and 5B.

For 5B, it’s obvious. Unsolicited bulk electronic communications, i.e. spam, is all about content. In order to know whether something is spam, you need to know what the message says.

Article 5A might seem more innocuous, but it has similar implications. To be sure, some of network security relates to defence of physical infrastructure. But most of telecommunications security is about warding off cyber-attacks. These are basically inflicted by manipulating content in a way that the recipient can’t handle, either in volume (denial-of-service attacks), in substance (viruses, hacking) or just deception (identity theft), as Paul Budde explains in a post. Indeed, cyber-security is often about protecting information (New Zealanders will recall the recent MSD incident).

To be fair to Dr Touré, it is true that the first paragraphs says explicitly:

1.1 a) […] These Regulations do not address the content-related aspects of telecommunications.

This article was introduced as a compromise to make 5A and 5B more amenable to countries who want the ITRs to keep out of the internet. But it was a struggle—the countries backing 5A and 5B weren’t happy with it. Indeed, opposition to 5A and 5B broadly stems from a suspicion that, despite the careful wording, the articles would effectively make way for the Internet to creep into the scope of the ITU.

Resolutions and “non-binding” nonsense
Most significantly, there’s plenary resolution 3, “to foster an enabling environment for the greater growth of the Internet”. Dr Touré and WCIT Chair Mohamed Alghanim have tried to downplay this resolution to media, calling it “non-binding” and not as significant as resolution of the ITU’s parent, the UN.

Unfortunately for their assertions, it also includes this text:

… instructs the Secretary-General

1 to continue to take the necessary steps for the ITU to play an active and constructive role in the development of the multistakeholder model of the Internet…

Even to the extent that it doesn’t bind member states, then, it still instructs the Secretary-General to seek a greater role for the ITU in the Internet. You don’t need to mention the slippery-slope thing to note that this would clearly involves the Internet. And it’s rich to say it’ll have no effect on the Internet—if that’s the case, why bother?

But more fundamentally, the attitude expressed here—that it’s not binding—is dangerous ground for signing the treaty. International agreements don’t work when countries sign them without intending to follow them. If countries can’t agree to a resolution, they shouldn’t sign saying they do, accepting some moral force even if it’s not legally binding.

Poor Touré
I really don’t envy Dr Touré’s job.  He’s been doing double-speak all year, mainly because he has to—as Secretary-General, he can’t be seen taking sides. His job is to find common ground among member states. To uphold the credibility of the ITU, he also has retain a degree of optimism that consensus can be found, as he’s been repeating all year. Deep down, he must have known it was a lost cause.

Dr Touré has been trying his best to put some positive spin on the WCIT. In some respects, he’s right: the agreements on international roaming charges, access to optical fibre networks for developing countries, and a single international emergency number were all laudable and widely supported. But it is still his regrettable job to defend to the public simultaneously two opposing visions for the Internet.

The problem with double-speak is that your words eventually become meaningless. Sadly, that’s what’s happened here. Here’s reality: at the WCIT, rifts grew, discussions became polarised, and consensus slipped steadily further away. It failed to do what it set out to do: revise the ITRs in a way agreeable to all. It didn’t keep away from the Internet, as he promised. Dr Touré doubtless knows all this. But so long as the ITU rests on his shoulders, it’s not for him to say out loud.

(Photo credit: ITU)

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