Dispatch From Dubai

wcit380Silicon Valley’s collective vision of the Internet was on trial recently at a United Nations treaty conference held in the Persian Gulf. Did the Valley’s thought leaders, business innovators and serial entrepreneurs appreciate the degree to which their shared assumptions about the Internet — its dynamism, openness, adaptability and ferocious commercial power — were under methodical assault by countries like Iran, Russia, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia?

The American delegation tasked with defending the Internet’s flat, decentralized and globally unregulated structure was composed of a vast swath of government agencies ranging from the State and Defense departments to the FCC and White House National Economic Council. The delegation also encompassed a powerful tier of commercial representatives from preponderant technology companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Cisco. In the months before the conference, the U.S. team was assiduously briefed on an array of hugely controversial proposals to regulate Internet content, impose tariffs on Internet traffic, and usurp management of the Internet’s technical protocols and address system. But no member of the delegation, not even the most seasoned veterans of such global negotiations, could confidently predict how the acutely contentious conference agenda would ultimately generate an acceptable international agreement.

“Consensus! Consensus! Consensus!” This was how an emphatic Hamadoun Toure, secretary-general of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), promised to navigate world governments through the two weeks of talks, the first in history to debate the prospect of international Internet regulation. Delivering his opening remarks to more than 150 national delegations, Toure, an electrical engineer from Mali educated at the Moscow Technical University of Communications and Informatics in Russia, sought to assuage the palpable anxiety among many countries that the future control and governance of the Internet were at risk.

In the weeks before the conference, Toure had provided repeated assurances to the U.S. and other governments that the treaty under discussion in Dubai would hew carefully to established principles for the management of international telecommunications that have been in force for decades. The last time member states had debated the scope of the ITU charter was in the decidedly pre-Internet era of 1988. As the body convened 24 years later to modernize its rules and mission, the ITU’s culture of consensus, Toure seemed to be arguing, was the ultimate safeguard that a United Nations agency primarily dedicated to managing a largely anachronistic international telephony regime and radio spectrum would not aspire to exercise regulatory oversight of the Internet.

Toure’s promise of consensus came on the first day of the conference, during a plenary meeting held on Dec. 3, when all of the ITU member states patiently listened to a series of opening statements delivered to an attentive assembly convened in Dubai’s mammoth international trade center. It was a hopeful moment with thousands in attendance, many wearing the traditional national dress of the Arab world, Africa and South Asia. Within 10 days, however, the conference was on the brink of collapse.

The tipping point came after iterated sessions of grinding, tedious parliamentary skirmishing and maneuvering. With two days before a treaty was to be signed, and scant progress on the most consequential issues, the conference delegations were called into late-night negotiations. It was then, at about 1:10 am on Dec. 13, when Toure jolted a sleepy proceeding awake with a surprise intervention.

The hushed quiet of the plenary meeting that evening was the same it had been each day before. Hundreds of delegates sat at long rows of tables in a massive space the size of an airplane hangar. Strapped into headsets that transmitted the now deeply familiar voices of the U.N. translators interpreting Arabic, Chinese, French, Spanish, Japanese and English, the delegates listened in respectful silence, with the only noise emanating from the floor being the tap-tap-tap of countless laptop computers transmitting live color commentary and email exchanges about the historic debate. Walking through the cavernous meeting room for the plenary sessions, studiously quiet except for an occasional muffled cough, one would have assumed that a gigantic standardized test was being administered, a global LSAT or GRE exam.

Into this environment of perfunctory calm swooped Toure, prompting conference delegates to consider a resolution calling on the ITU and its member states to play an enlarged role in “international Internet governance and for ensuring the stability, security and continuity of the existing Internet and its future development and of the future Internet.” It was precisely the sort of provision, recycled from a prior U.N. conference, that Toure had promised would not divide his gathering, the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT).

One of the senior American negotiators, Dick Baird, a career State Department official with an elegant mastery of the ITU’s arcane procedural and political machinations, jumped in swiftly. Always the diplomat, Baird cloaked his skepticism with courtesy. “We are concerned about this resolution because it begins to be — it is a resolution about the Internet.”

The conference chairman, Mohamed Nasser Al-Ghanim of the host United Arab Emirates, responded incredulously. “I’m so surprised to hear this, while yesterday I thought we have reached a consensus,” he said. This premise — that a secret deal had been brokered to expand the U.N.’s authority over the Internet — would engender continued bitterness and confusion long after the conference. The notion that the U.S. and its allies in the Americas, Europe and Asia had agreed to empower the ITU to have even a whisper of authority over Internet governance was baffling. Rejecting that effort was the most consistently articulated priority of the U.S. team and its top allies. Chairman Ghanim nonetheless sought to force the issue by preempting debate. “I think I’m going to stop this discussion at this point,” he casually pronounced, “because we are not moving forward.”

Yet the discussion continued. Toure took the microphone. “It’s not a crime to talk about the Internet inside the ITU,” he insisted. Toure launched a rambling defense of his resolution, his emotion rising and his argument splintering into incoherent fragments. “There is nothing wrong with this. Please, we are trying to build bridges so we work together so the consumers benefit better. Please, everybody, help us to continue to build that bridge.” Toure added: “The future is broadband, and the future is Internet, and the future is Internet, and the future is broadband Internet.” He was now pleading with the delegates for their support. “Trust me,” he implored.

In the next few minutes, the conference imploded. A series of countries endorsed Toure’s resolution, with South Africa, Cuba, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia taking the floor. The chairman called for a show of hands to measure support for the resolution. “I want the feel of the room,” he offered innocuously. According to the ITU’s procedures, the chairman had the prerogative to seek a simple show of hands — little placards, really — to assess the weight of opinion on a given issue or provision. And he also could interpret that expression opinion, known as the “temperature of the room,” according to his own discretion, which is precisely what Chairman Al-Ghanim did. “You can lower your plate now,” he stated coolly from the dais. “The majority is with having the resolution in.”

Mass confusion erupted from the plenary floor. The delegate from Spain spoke on behalf of the dozens of member states deeply confounded by the procedural sleight of hand that apparently had just legitimized a role for the U.N. in the governance of the Internet. “I would like you to clarify whether the temperature you were taking was simply a taking of the temperature,” he asked, borrowing from the arcane conference nomenclature.

“No it was not a vote, and I was clear about it,” Al-Ghanim replied. Although it was not voted on, the resolution was nonetheless adopted at the discretion of the chairman, its language to be incorporated into the final treaty text. “We have reached the end of the time,” said the chairman. “Thank you, and have a good night.” According to the official transcript of the proceeding the plenary session then concluded, at precisely 1:31 a.m.

The conference’s fate was now sealed. It would likely end in angry discord because the red line of Internet governance had been crossed. Before the formal debate was concluded other Internet provisions were crammed into the treaty, dangerous precedents recently enumerated in a news analysis for the Financial Times. At the insistence of Russia, China and several Arab states, the new treaty includes a provision mandating coordination on cybersecurity, defined euphemistically in the treaty as “network” security. The treaty calls on the U.N. International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and its member states to accede to vague commitments that experts fear may evolve into an effort by state governments to engage in the global surveillance of Internet traffic.

Encouraged by African states and supported by countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, the treaty creates a requirement that member states seek to defend against Internet spam, which is imprecisely defined as “unsolicited bulk electronic communications.” Critics of the provision noted that spam is easily managed by commercially prevalent software programs, and warned that the expansive definition it applied could be appropriated as a tool to censor content on the Internet ranging from political speech to Web advertising. Yet that vague definition was more than satisfactory for some of the member states. “Spam is spam!” the delegate from Iran complained. “I don’t need a definition!”

Finally, the scope of the treaty and the entities to which it could be applied was never clarified. Under the treaty’s fuzzy language, its jurisdiction could potentially be applied to Internet service providers, private networks, and even government networks.

When the full panoply of provisions relating to Internet governance was clearly defined, the U.S. signaled its refusal to sign the treaty. The U.K. and Canada quickly followed. Eventually, all of Europe refused to sign the treaty, along with Japan, Costa Rica, Australia, New Zealand, and Latvia. In total, 55 countries rejected the agreement.

Silicon Valley should take note of the international debate in Dubai. The collapse of the global dialogue about the future of the Internet foreshadows a conflict that will almost certainly accelerate in coming years. The Internet’s prevailing governance paradigm revolving around the private sector, technical cooperation, innovation and multi-stakeholder management will be increasingly challenged by world governments. Why? The Internet is simply too consequential a strategic and geopolitical resource for many global powers to not seek to control it. In that sense, Dubai was only the first battle in an emerging global contest to shape the future of the Internet.

The author is a managing director at Silver Lake, and served as a member of the American delegation to the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai. He writes in his individual capacity, and the views expressed here are his own.

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