Sang Tan, File, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Secret negotiations among dozens of countries preparing for a United Nations summit could lead to changes in a global treaty that would diminish the Internet's role in economic growth and restrict the free flow of information.
The U.S. delegation to the World Conference on International Telecommunications to be held in Dubai in December has vowed to block any proposals from Russia and other countries that they believe threaten the Internet's current governing structure or give tacit approval to online censorship.
But those assurances have failed to ease fears that bureaucratic tinkering with the treaty could damage the world's most powerful engine for exchanging information, creating jobs and even launching revolutions, according to legal experts and civil liberties advocates who have been tracking the discussions. Social networks played a key role in the Arab Spring uprisings that last year upended regimes in Egypt and Tunisia.
Russia, for example, has proposed language that requires member states to ensure the public has unrestricted access and use of international telecommunication services "except in cases where international telecommunication services are used for the purpose of interfering in the internal affairs or undermining the sovereignty, national security, territorial integrity and public safety of other states, or to divulge information of a sensitive nature," according to a May 3 U.N. document that details the various proposals for amending the treaty.
The wording of this provision could allow a country to cite a U.N. treaty as the basis for repressing political opposition. The provision also appears to contradict Article 19 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says people shall have the right to access information "through any media and regardless of frontiers."
An amended treaty would be binding on the United States if it is ratified by the Senate. But approval is not automatic. The treaty is sure to be scrutinized by lawmakers wary of its potential impact.
The U.N.'s International Telecommunication Union, which oversees the treaty, does not operate like the U.N. Security Council, where the United States has the power to veto resolutions to which it objects. The ITU works on a consensus basis. Proposals can be stopped from serious consideration if enough countries voice their objections. More than 190 nations will attend the Dubai conference and the U.S. delegation is seeking support for its positions at the preparatory meetings that will continue until the conference convenes.
"It is important that when we have values, as we do in the area of free speech and the free flow of information, that we do everything that we can to articulate and sustain those values," Philip Verveer, deputy assistant secretary of state and U.S. coordinator for international communications and information policy, said in an interview.
The drafting and debating of proposals in preparation for the Dubai conference have taken place largely behind closed doors. Public interest groups have criticized the process and said it runs counter to development of sound public policy. In response to calls for transparency, two research fellows at George Mason University's Mercatus Center launched the website WCITLeaks.org earlier this month as a way to make documents that have been leaked to them by anonymous sources available publicly.
The negotiations have sparked rumors that the U.N. and the ITU are plotting to take control of the Internet from the loose coalition of nongovernmental organizations that establishes Internet policies, standards and rules, they said. The ITU's secretary general, Hamadoun Toure, has called the takeover rumor "ridiculous."
The ITU said the preparatory process is open to all member states as well as hundreds of private sector and academic organizations. The member states, not the ITU, determine the rules of participation and are free to share documents and information as they see fit, the agency said in an emailed statement.