U.N. treaty on Web freedom may face attempts to censor

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A year after the Internet helped fuel the Arab Spring uprisings, the role cyberspace plays in launching revolutions is being threatened by proposed changes to a United Nations telecommunications treaty that could allow countries to stifle the free flow of information.

For months, dozens of countries have been meeting behind closed doors to debate changes to the 24-year-old treaty. The U.S. delegation to the World Conference on International Telecommunications to be held in Dubai this December has vowed to block any proposals that could permit online censorship or undercut the Internet’s current governing structure.

Yet those assurances have failed to ease fears that bureaucratic tinkering with the treaty could imperil Internet freedom and diminish its role in economic growth, according to legal experts and civil liberties advocates who have been tracking the discussions.

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.”

A senior U.N. official said Friday the amended treaty will not create any barriers to information online, but acknowledged that the Russian proposal has not yet been rejected. Any proposals that cannot be agreed upon by all member states will not be included in the final document, said Hamadoun Toure, secretary general of the International Telecommunication Union, the U.N. agency that oversees the treaty.

An amended treaty would be binding on the United States if it is ratified by the Senate. But approval is not automatic. The treaty, known formally as the International Telecommunications Regulations, is sure to be scrutinized by lawmakers wary of its potential impact.

The ITU 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.

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