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Revised Internet treaty could help stifle dissent

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Internet engineers and legal scholars are worried that amendments to a U.N. telecommunications treaty will give repressive governments more control of the Internet in their countries and could begin to undermine international sanctions against pariah states such as Iran.

Current and former U.S. and foreign officials, scientists and scholars will testify about their concerns Tuesday before a joint hearing of the House Foreign Affairs and the House Energy and Commerce committees.

According to prepared testimony and other documents made available by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the witnesses will report on the outcome of December's World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai, where some countries agreed to revisions to the International Telecommunications Regulations, a 1998 treaty that governs telephone services across national borders.

"While the final treaty text was disappointing, it was not as bad as it could have been," according to the prepared testimony of Sally Shipman Wentworth, government liaison for the Internet Society, an association of scientists and engineers that sets standards for aspects of the Internet's operation.

Ms. Wentworth praises the work of the U.S. and allied delegations that fended off the most dangerous proposed changes to the treaty, which would have given the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) — the U.N. body that administers the treaty — significant new authority over the Internet.

But she warns that the revised treaty "does contain language that could have a lasting impact on the Internet's infrastructure and operations, and on the content that is so fundamental to its value."

In particular, there is concern about the role the treaty creates for the ITU and signatory states in controlling spam email.

That provision will allow repressive regimes "to inspect the content of Internet messages to determine if they can be blocked [as spam] to solve so-called 'network congestion' issues," according to the prepared testimony of David A. Gross, a former State Department official who was responsible for international communications and information policy.

"China could use that [provision] to do many things to monitor or disrupt communications, for example of dissidents," Mr. Gross said in an interview with The Washington Times.

His testimony also highlights an "unprecedented" treaty revision that he warns could undermine international sanctions against pariah states including Iran, Sudan and North Korea.

"This provision purports to give what the ITU has referred to as a new 'human right' — the right to access international telecommunications services — but to give the right to governments rather than individuals," he says in prepared testimony.

"That turns the whole concept of 'human rights' on its head and could give sanctioned nations — rather than individuals — a basis for arguing that restrictions on the provision of telecommunications equipment or services were violations of their 'rights'" under the revised treaty, Mr. Gross says. "It's a way of governments trying to get around sanctions."

As a result of these provisions, 55 nations including the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, India, Chile, Costa Rica, Great Britain and most other European Union nations refused to sign or deferred a decision on signing the revised International Telecommunications Regulations.

Eighty-nine other nations including Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Singapore, Kuwait, Iran, Iraq, Brazil, Yemen and Zimbabwe signed the treaty.

Some of those countries may have to have the treaty ratified by vote in their legislatures or some other procedure, Mr. Gross said, adding that 40 to 50 countries that are signatories of the original treaty but did not attend the Dubai conference have not signed the revised document.

International telecommunications for countries like the U.S., which signed the original treaty but not the revised pact, continue to be governed by the 1988 treaty, he said.

"That could potentially be a real mess" when the provisions come into force on Jan. 1, 2015, Mr. Gross said.

China for several years has operated "The Great Firewall," a series of technical and regulatory measures that allow government censors to block access to specified sites for Chinese Web users, while Russia claims the authority to shut down websites for a wide variety of vaguely worded reasons.

Last year, Iran said it is developing a national, Islamic pure Web separate from the rest of the global Internet, while its security services have been implicated in surveillance of Iranian users of email services like Google's Gmail.

Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican, said, "Many of the same countries that want to increase government control of the Internet are the same countries where Internet freedom suffers the most."

Mr. Smith heads the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa, global health, global human rights and international organizations.

Several witnesses note in their testimony that December's conference in Dubai likely marked the beginning, not the end, of efforts to impose intergovernmental authority over the Internet.

Rep. Edward R. Royce, California Republican, said international efforts to regulate the Internet will continue and need to be opposed.

"Since its inception, the Internet has thrived in large part because of the government's hands-off approach, and we will continue our fight to ensure the global Internet remains free from government control," Mr. Royce, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said in a statement.

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About the Author
Shaun Waterman

Shaun Waterman

Shaun Waterman is an award-winning reporter for The Washington Times, covering foreign affairs, defense and cybersecurity. He was a senior editor and correspondent for United Press International for nearly a decade, and has covered the Department of Homeland Security since 2003. His reporting on the Sept. 11 Commission and the tortuous process by which some of its recommendations finally became ...

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