The International Telecoms Union (ITU) suffered a "humiliating failure" as the US led the way inm blocking proposed new regulations on how the internet is run.

International Telecoms Union
Delegates that the World Conference on International Telecommunications were unable to agreement on a new treaty due to differences on how the internet should be regulated.

Late on Thursday evening, it appeared as if consensus had been reached at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai where almost 200 countries were looking to ratify a new global telecoms treaty.

However, after the applause died down following a vote on what to include in the preamble to the updated treaty, a representative from the United States took the floor and announce it would not be signing the new treaty:

"It is with a heavy heart and a sense of missed opportunities that I have to announce that the United States must communicate that it is unable to sign the agreement in its current form," Terry Kramer, head of the US delegation, told the conference.

"The internet has given the world unimaginable economic and social benefit during these past 24 years. All without UN regulation. We candidly cannot support an ITU Treaty that is inconsistent with the multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance," Kramer added.

The US was then followed by the UK, Sweden, Egypt, Canada, Poland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Kenya, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Qatar, and the Czech Republic, all of whom expressed regret that the conference had not been able to effectively tackle the issues in front of it and warned they would not be able to sign the final text.

While the new treaty deals with the telecoms industry as a whole, it was the role of the internet and how it is to be regulated that caused the treaty to fail.

Kieren McCarthy, who runs online consultancy dot-nxt, called the outcome a "humiliating failure" and "an embarrassment" for the ITU.

"The collapse will come as a severe embarrassment to the ITU. Efforts to bring its core telecom regulations into the Internet era had exposed the organization to modern realities that it was incapable of dealing with. In the end, they proved overwhelming."

The ITU has been criticised for the way the conference was run, with organisations complaining that proposal documents from governments were unavailable ahead of the conference and that key decisions during the conference were taken behind closed doors by a small number of key government officials.

Battle lines drawn

Ahead of the 12-day conference, battle lines had been drawn, with the US, western European countries and a host of private companies such as Google and Facebook looking to keep the internet free and unregulated.

Countries like Russia, China and nations in the Middle East on the other hand proposed giving individual nations tighter control over what their citizens can access on the net.

The US has been at the forefront of the efforts to keep the internet free and with good cause. Most of the world's internet traffic travels through the country, with much of the web's infrastructure based there. It also isthe country with the most to gain economically from a free and open internet.

America sent a delegation of over 120 people to the conference in Dubai, second in size only to the host nation, and among them were representatives from huge internet IPs such as Google and Facebook. Indeed Google was been one of the strongest voices against internet regulation, launching a Take Action campaign.

The usually reserved Vint Cerf, who is famous for being one of the fathers of the internet, as well as his current role as Google's chief internet evangelist, also spoke out strongly ahead of WCIT:

"These persistent attempts are just evidence that this breed of dinosaurs, with their pea-sized brains, hasn't figured out that they are dead yet, because the signal hasn't travelled up their long necks," Cerf told Reuters.


As well as private companies being part of the US delegation, there were also representatives from the department of the defence, who were there to ensure that the word "security" was not included in the treaty.

The US government is aggressively following a cyber-espionage programme, known as Olympic Games, which has resulted in cyber attacks on Iran and other Middle Eastern countries. The US is therfore eager to protect its position, as well as limiting other countries' ability to catch up in such matters.

The immediate impact of the failure to sign a new treaty will be minimal. The ITU will make the countries who support the treaty sign it on Friday, but it will be effectively a worthless document, as the ITU will be unable to implement its suggestions because of the objections from major states like the US and UK.

On the surface, keeping the internet free and open may seem like a good outcome for most people in the western world, but the failure to implement the treaty will weaken the ITU and the work it is trying to do.

The ITU's work includes managing the international radio-frequency spectrum and developing technical standards - work which could now be affected by its inability to get a new treaty ratified.

Another problem with the failure to ratify the treaty is that the aspects which were agreed on will also be thrown out. The WCIT has reached agreement on the implementation of a global emergency number as well as making it easier for landlocked countries and islands to access international fibre optics networks.