For the last two weeks some of the planet’s most oppressive regimes have faced off against some of the most powerful Internet advocates in an effort to rewrite a multilateral communications treaty that, if successful, could have changed the nature of the Internet and altered the way it is governed.On Thursday night that effort failed, as a US-led block of dissenting countries refused to sign the proposed updates, handing the United Nation’s International Telecommunication Union a humbling defeat.The United States, which framed its dissent as defending “the open Internet,” was joined by more than 80 other countries, including Australia,Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, Greece, Italy, Japan, Kenya, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Sweden and the United Kingdom. (Some of the non-signers seemed to be seeking to avoid making too overt of a political statement, saying, regrettably that they could not sign because they had to “consult with capital.”)On Friday, the remaining members of the ITU, which is made up of 193 countries, signed the treaty, known as International Telecommunications Regulations, but the gesture in many ways was hollow.Like other U.N. agencies, the ITU strives for consensus, and it’s within that consensus that the ITU derives its authority. The ITU can’t force a country to abide by its treaties, but if representatives of all member countries agree to a global telecommunications framework, and subsequently pass laws enforcing the framework, the ITU itself grows stronger.
Interpreted as a power grab by the United Nations, the secrecy rang alarm bells. Distrust of the ITU began to approach panic after the contents of more controversial proposals became known. Some of the proposals endorsed by authoritarian countries would have increased censorship, potentially restricted the free flow of information and undermined the voluntary framework that forms the basis of today’s Internet.