Internet power-grab looms large as world conference enters final day

Vote taboo broken at WCIT as chair asks for "feel of the room"

Moment of the non-vote vote at 1am. Credit: Dominique Lazanski

Fears that the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) will award itself a role in governance of the Internet, despite the promises of its Secretary-General, are looming large on the last day of the World Teleconference on International Telecommunications (WCIT).

At the end of a confusing and fast-paced day of discussions yesterday, the issue that has haunted for the conference for the past six months finally exploded into the open with discussion of a new proposed resolution that would see the ITU "play an active and constructive role" in deciding the evolution of the global communications network.

That resolution met with strong resistance from the United States and Europe, who argued repeatedly that Internet governance has no role in the telecommunications regulations that the conference is revising. In response, a number of Arab and African countries argued forcefully for its introduction.

At 1am, with delegates exhausted from a full day of discussions, and a long list of countries still wishing to speak to the resolution, UAE conference chair Mohamed Nasser Al Ghanim asked for "the feel of the room" about whether the resolution should be included.

That led to government representatives raising the large yellow paddles they keep by their desk in favor and against the resolution. To the surprise of many, when a majority of paddles went up for the resolution, the chair announced that "the majority agreed to adopt the resolution as amended", prompting howls of protest from those who felt an informal poll has been used as a more formal vote. The meeting closed shortly after and will open again this morning at 9.30am.

Read the trancript from last night.

While the resolution may only have passed on to the next stage of discussions, and the chair quickly stressed that he had not intended to call a formal vote on the issue, his actions appear to have broken the taboo at ITU meetings of calling a vote to decide an issue, and so raise real fears that one could be used later today to force through an Internet governance resolution.

Those fears were further stoked by comments from ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Toure. Despite having declared on several occasions that Internet governance would not be a part of the conference, and having stressed that the ITU would not hold a vote but would only drive for a consensus view, Toure failed to reiterate either just prior to the non-vote, arguing instead that mention of the Internet should not be taboo.

"I beg you not to think that we cannot even pronounce the name Internet in this meeting," Toure said, moments before governments raised their paddles. "It's not a crime to talk about Internet inside the ITU. Just like inside the bodies dealing with Internet, they talk about telecommunications. Some of them are certain members of ITU and they are here in this room."

Given the heightened sensitivities over any mention of the Internet, Toure comments were taken by some as evidence that he would go back on earlier promises if he felt it was possible to get a resolution through the conference that would give the ITU greater powers.

Vote possible

With governments having fallen into two distinct camps and countless efforts to bridge the gap having failed over the past week, it looks increasingly possible that a vote will be called, despite the ITU's cultural bias against it.

The non-vote last night demonstrated that a majority of members were in favor of an Internet resolution. Added to that, if there is not a vote then the minority views will prevail, since the lack of consensus will mean sticking to the status quo. As such the lead proponent of the push to include the Internet - Russia - has two good reasons to call for a vote, and even indicated in a session earlier in the day yesterday that it was prepared to do so.

The end result is that those countries opposed to referring to the Internet in the renegotiated treaty -the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe - will be in a weaker negotiation position on the crucial last day of negotiations since they face the very real prospect of losing.

None of this has gone unnoticed by the Internet organizations that currently develop and devise the policies and protocols that guide the Internet. A significant number of representatives of those organizations have made it to the conference either by getting on their countries' delegations or as observers by having become "sector members" of the ITU.

However none of them are entitled to speak, and they will not receive a vote, only adding to a sense of frustration and fury that the network they have built is being negotiated away in front of them.