ITU delegates defy US, Europe to vote for “active” Internet role

Delegates at the International Telecommunications Union’s (ITU) World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) yesterday agreed that the United Nations (UN) body should take a more “active” role in shaping the Internet’s future, rejecting American opposition to the move.

The ITU’s 192 member nations voted in favour of the summit in Dubai, though the move was not without its controversy.

ITU secretary-general Hamadoun Touré had repeatedly said previously that the summit would look to achieve consensus rather than make decisions through divisive votes.

“In the true tradition of the ITU, we will not vote on any issues,” Touré said this summer. “Voting means winners and losers, and this is not simply acceptable. And we believe that we’ll come to an agreement on all of the issues.”

He also said as recently as last week that the summit “is not about Internet governance.”

The vote, then, which was pushed through with the active support of Nigeria, Cuba, Algeria and Saudi Arabia, took the United States and European nations by surprise, with US delegation head Terry Kramer having said only moments earlier: “We do not believe the focus of this conference should be on the Internet and we did not come to this conference in anticipation of a discussion on the Internet… We oppose this resolution.”

The Spanish delegate objected to the process, saying: “Had we known that it was a vote, we might well have acted differently.” Other European nations and civil liberty groups objected to the resolution.

Civil liberty groups had previously warned that many delegate nations had track records of hindering toward freedom of expression and the traditionally free Internet. Reporters Without Borders said in 2011 that two-thirds of the world’s nations have significant “problems” with press freedom.

The Algerian government has censored websites critical of it, while monitoring Internet chat rooms. “I would encourage all of us to adopt the text as it appears here and with no modifications,” the country’s delegate said, while the delegate from Nigeria, where government security forces have reportedly engaged in extrajudicial killings, took the same view.

Human rights remain an issue at the conference a day after the controversial vote, with China, Algeria and Iran objected to a U.S.-backed proposal to mention “human rights obligations” in the treaty.

Algeria said other “silent member states” also opposed the human rights language, while China said: “We also have a very serious question about the necessity of the existence of this text”, referring to the “security of the state”. Proceedings were temporarily adjourned.

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