A conference to update an international telecommunications treaty intended to facilitate access to, and investment in, high-speed broadband networks has ended with a major split between member states over whether such a treaty should contain any reference to the Internet.
The World Conference on International Telecommunications took place in Dubai earlier this month (3-14 December). Held under the auspices of the UN's International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the conference was seen as a landmark meeting that would update a 1988 treaty to enhance the global flow of information.
Improving cross-border telecommunications regulations would help facilitate the exchange of the research data and information in areas such as health and agriculture, boosting economic development in poorer countries.
But the refusal by 55 countries to sign the treaty left delegates and observers uncertain about the real impact of the treaty. Those refusing to sign include Australia, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom and other European nations. In the developing world, they include Costa Rica, India and Kenya.
The treaty will come into force at the start of 2015 with or without the signatures of these countries.
The treaty is just the beginning of something that I believe will bridge a [digital] gap, said ITU secretary-general Hamadoun Tour.
During the closing press conference, he said that the treaty could help to cut the costs of Internet access and telecommunications, particularly for the two-thirds of the world's population without web access, by providing a transparent regulatory environment for investment.
But some diplomats said the ITU had overstated the importance of the treaty for unconnected areas of developing countries.
Rohan Samarajiva, CEO of LIRNEasia, a regional think-tank on information and communications technology policy, tells SciDev.Net that the treaty is not worth the paper it is printed on.
He says: The treaty is mostly a collection of platitudes. The real governance of the Internet will continue unchanged under other technical bodies dominated by experts.
Matthew Shears, a senior policy expert at the Center for Democracy Technology which, along with other civil society groups, had campaigned for the Internet to be kept out of the treaty said: It would be nice to think that the treaty will move towards bridging the digital divide. But I am not convinced it is going to do so.
People do not have a clear idea of what the impact will be on countries that have signed the treaty compared with countries that have not.
He added: The Internet has crept in as a [nonbinding] resolution rather than as a treaty article.
Negotiators have eliminated controversial proposals made by some Arab states alongside European telecommunications companies to raise money for infrastructure development by making receiving countries pay a levy seen by many as a damaging 'tax' on the Internet.
But the inclusion of resolutions which unlike treaty articles are not mandatory committing governments to foster an enabling environment for the greater growth of the Internet and stating that all governments should have an equal role and responsibility for international Internet governance caused the main conference rift. This was because the United States and other countries regarded these as amounting to the introduction of government control of the Internet.
Defending these parts of the treaty, conference chairman Sheikh Mohamed Al-Ghanim said: It does not talk about Internet governance; it talks about fostering and promoting the Internet.
The resolutions were also backed by many developing countries in the Arab world and Africa on the grounds that common platforms are needed to deliver voice and data due to convergence between telecommunications and the Internet.
Even a resolution backed by Arab states and Iran, which called on countries to take steps to prevent the propagation of unsolicited bulk email, was seen as contentious. This is due to the fact that some nations regard this 'spam' as content and so this change could amount to censorship if applied by authoritarian regimes.
In the end, just 89 of the 144 participating countries signed the treaty. Many representatives from the 55 abstaining countries, such as India and the Philippines, said they would have to consult their governments first.
Diplomats said this indicated uncertainty over what benefits the treaty would bring.
Tour said it was right for the ITU to be tackling the issue. The majority of the people accessing the Internet today do so through mobile phones. Mobile operators are members of the ITU.
In a briefing after the conference, Terry Kramer, head of the US delegation at the conference, admitted at a 'postmortem' event in Washington DC this week (19 December) that battles such asthat over keeping the Internet out of the treaty meant there wasn't a more fully fledged discussion about advancing broadband in Africa. It's a huge, huge missed opportunity, he said.