DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A disappointed American delegation led a Western snub of a U.N. telecommunications treaty Thursday after rivals, including Iran and China, won support for provisions interpreted as endorsing greater government control of the Internet.
The unraveling of the conference displayed the deep ideological divide at the 193-nation gathering in Dubai, where envoys grappled with the first revisions of global telecom codes since 1988 — years before the dawn of the Internet age.
A Western bloc led by a powerhouse U.S. delegation sought to stop any U.N. rules on cyberspace, fearing they could squeeze Web commerce and open the door for more restrictions and monitoring by authoritarian regimes that already impose wide-ranging clampdowns. The head of one tech industry group said it could "forever alter" the Web.
A rival group — including China, Russia, Gulf Arab states, African nations and others — favored U.N. backing for stronger government sway over Internet affairs and claimed the Western dominance of the Internet needed to be addressed.
The battles were over language that could influence perceptions of what the Internet means as a modern tool for business, communications and societies — and not directly about specific practical regulations.
The head of the U.S. delegation, Ambassador Terry Kramer, described it as a "crossroads over the collective view of the Internet."
Many of the disputed clauses were quashed or watered down during 10 days of negotiations, but the non-Western bloc managed to win support for wording that supported governments' rights to have access to the Web.
This was viewed by the U.S. and its allies as a backdoor attempt to gain U.N. sanction for more government controls over the Internet, adding to earlier objections about references that could suggest U.N. backing for more state authority over content and commerce.
In a packed meeting hall, U.S. envoy Kramer said he could not sign the final accord, noting a "heavy heart and a sense of missed opportunities."
A host of Western nations — including Canada, Britain and New Zealand — also said they could not back the new charter by the U.N.'s International Telecommunications Union, or ITU, a group dating back to the birth of the telegraph more than 140 years ago.
"Internet policy should not be determined by member states, but by citizens, communities and broader society ... the private sector and civil society," said Kramer. "That has not happened here."
He bemoaned possible signs that the free-wheeling growth of the Internet could now be encumbered by government bureaucracies and security agencies.
"The Internet has given the world unimaginable economic and social benefits ... all without UN regulations," he told the conference.
The ITU has no powers to instantly change how the Internet operates and its regulations are non-binding. It also cannot compel reforms by states that already widely censor cyberspace.