United States Will Attempt to Steer Dubai Telecom Treaty Toward `Harmless' Outcome

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By David McAuley  

The U.S. strategy regarding this fall's renegotiation of a global telecommunications treaty will be to ensure that the treaty remains “harmless”to the internet, Kathryn O'Brien, assistant bureau chief of the Federal Communications Commission International Bureau said March 21.

O'Brien's remarks are the latest coming out of Washington contending that global telecom regulators convening in Dubai at the International Telecommunications Union's World Conference on International Telecommunications should steer clear of internet governance matters.

“Internet services are not in the treaty, and they should not be.”Kathryn O'Brien FCC International Bureau O'Brien spoke on a panel sponsored by the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Internet Society.

“Internet services are not in the treaty, and they should not be,” O'Brien said. The existing treaty, agreed to in 1988, incorporated telephone and telegraph regulations into a single framework known as the International Telecommunication Regulations, but it left the then-fledgling internet unaddressed.

Over the past decade, as communications technologies have advanced, and as developing nations' revenues from international telephone call traffic has dwindled, a number of countries have been pushing to revise the treaty.

Scope, Definitions Critical.

The negotiations will “all come down to the scope of the treaty,”O'Brien said. Definitions play a key role in the process of establishing the scope of the revision, she added. For instance, she said, the current treaty definition of “international telecommunication service” is fairly general. The United States's position is that internet services do not fall within the definition, drawing a distinction between telecommunication services and information services. Not all countries agree.

There is “much churning over this definition,” O'Brien said. But she went on to say that there is high risk in trying to change it, whether by way of excluding or including services. If a party tries to narrow this definition and fails, then that background could lead to broad interpretations, O'Brien commented. Or, if the definition is opened up, “others [might] succeed in revising the definition in ways that would make it impossible for the U.S. to argue that Internet is not covered,” she told BNA in a follow-up email.

“We are working feverishly with allies to make [the treaty] harmless—we don't need global regulation” of the internet, she said. One option for the United States would be to walk away, but this option is not an attractive one without allies in the effort, O'Brien said. Instead, the better strategy would be to “neuter the treaty,” she suggested.

Leave at High Level.

The treaty should remain a high level statement of principles and details should be left out, especially with a subject that is prone to such rapidly changing technology, O'Brien said.

Leslie Martinkovics, director of international public policy and regulatory affairs at Verizon, described the existing treaty as old but in some respects still useful, for example in its taxation article. He expressed concern that the revision not tackle certain of the issues being put forward for review: takeover of the ICANN functions, cybersecurity, spam, roaming, privacy, taxation and double taxation, and network management issues such as quality of service.

Martinkovics held out the possibility that the Dubai conference will not finalize internet discussions, and that the ITU's World Telecommunication Policy Forum in 2013 might become the focal point for internet governance efforts.

O'Brien told BNA that she expects a treaty revision to come out of the Dubai conference. “I do expect, though, that most countries will take some types of reservations, if only of a generic nature. The current treaty is filled with pages of such reservations,”she said.