Who is responsible for the Dubai Debacle?

Posted on December 14, 2012  /  4 Comments

Many talk about the collapse of WCIT as a natural phenomenon; something that just happened, rather than something that specific individuals were responsible for. I disagree. This was something that could have been avoided. The process leading up to the Dubai fiasco could have been handled better.

ITU likes to claim that the 1988 WATTC in Melbourne which approved the current ITRs was responsible for the efflorescence of telecom connectivity in the past two decades. We disagree. What it did achieve was a carve out for commercial, liberal arrangements for leased lines under Article 9. That laid the foundation on which GATS built the rest. It was an achievement. The credit goes to Richard Butler. If the last-minute negotiations failed, we would not today be praising Dick Butler. In the same way, we have to not praise (or blame) the current Secretary General for the failure of WCIT in Dubai.

Before one convenes an international treaty conference, an enormous amount of preparatory work has to be done. That was why the then Secretary General appointed “balanced group of appropriate experts” under Resolution 79 of the 1998 Minneapolis Plenipotentiary. I was among the 19 members. Even today, if one googles ITRs, what comes up on top are the documents generated by that first expert group. There appear to have been some reports generated by the later expert groups, but they are behind password walls. The later groups were smaller, possibly a reaction to the difficulty our group faced in reaching consensus. But the fact that a representative group of experts could not reach consensus was itself seen as instructive by the Expert Group.

Whilst it is true to say that every member of the Expert Group may have some differing views on the issues, there was general agreement that differing expectations are likely to be placed on any regulatory provisions that are produced in the future. The wide range of views on the relevance of the ITRs both now and in the future, also poses the question as to how these views can be harmonized to produce an international regulatory framework which will be universally respected and will benefit everyone.

The current Secretary General does not appear to have built on this insight. Smaller Expert Groups and limited document distribution may have led to the ITU reality not accurately reflecting the rapidly changing reality of the outside world, leading to the Dubai debacle.

In a stunning repudiation of a United Nations summit, an alliance of Western democracies including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada today rejected a proposed treaty over concerns it hands repressive governments too much authority over the Internet.

“This conference was never meant to focus on Internet issues,” said ambassador Terry Kramer, head of the U.S. delegation to the Dubai summit. “The Internet has given the world unimaginable economic and social benefit during these past 24 years — all without U.N. regulation.”

Delegates from the Netherlands, New Zealand, Denmark, Sweden, the Philippines, Poland, and the Czech Republic also said they could not sign the proposed International Telecommunication Union treaty, which is scheduled to be finished by tomorrow. Kenya’s delegate appeared to take the same position, saying “we reserve our rights” to “go back home and do more consultations” before signing, and India has signaled it agrees with the U.S. position. Japan’s delegation said it needed to consult with Tokyo before proceeding.

The implosion of the high-profile ITU summit came late in the evening in Dubai after deep divisions became apparent over the mere mention of “human rights obligations” in the treaty — a proposal that China and Iran opposed — and whether the U.N. was the proper organization to oversee key decisions about how the Internet should be managed. Currently groups including the Internet Engineering Task Force and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, fulfill that role.

There are some, including my colleague Abu Saeed Khan, who interpret what happened in Dubai as some kind of calamity for the Internet. I disagree. The document that will be “adopted” in Dubai is not worth the paper it is printed on. It purports to claim authority over the Internet, but that is like Bangladesh declaring its sovereignty over Antarctica. It can be done; but it has no meaning.

The real governance of the Internet will continue unchanged under the IETF, ICANN and other expert dominated bodies. The authoritarian states that even today shut their people off certain kinds of Internet content (e.g., Pakistan, China) will perhaps claim that they have the ITU on their side. But, even there, a careful reading of the final Dubai text and the previous text will show that nothing much has changed.


  1. What about the US taking down sites it doesn’t like? Like wikileaks?

  2. “These Regulations establish general principles which relate to the provision and operation of international telecommunication services offered to the public as well as to the underlying international telecommunication transport means used to provide such services. These Regulations do not address the content-related aspects of telecommunications.” Art. 1.1 of the approved text.

    The ITRs are about international telecom services, not about everything under the sun.