Envoys from nearly 90 nations signed the first new UN telecommunications treaty since the internet age on Friday, but the U.S. and other Western nations refused to join after claiming it endorses greater government control over cyberspace.
The head of the UN telecoms group pushed back against the American assertions, defending the accord as necessary to help expand online services to poorer nations and add more voices to shape the direction of modern communications technology.
Hamadoun Toure's remarks highlighted the wide gaps and hard-fought positions during the past 10 days of global talks in Dubai.
The negotiations essentially pitted the West's desire to preserve the unregulated nature of the net against both developing countries yearning for better web access and strong-arm states such as Iran and China that closely filter cyberspace.
The final break late Thursday came down to an ideological split over the nature of the internet and who is responsible for its growth and governance.
More than 20 countries joined the U.S. on Friday in refusing to sign the protocols of the UN's International Telecommunications Union, claiming they open the door to greater government controls over the net and could be used by authoritarian states to justify further crackdowns on cyberspace.
On the other side, certain countries — including Iran, China and many African states — insisted that governments should have a greater sway over the internet and sought to break a perceived Western grip on information technology. They also favoured greater international help to bring reliable online links to the world's least developed regions.
The ITU, which dates to the age of the telegraph in the mid-19th century, has no technical powers to change how the internet operates or force countries to follow its non-binding accords, which also deal with issues such as roaming rates for mobile phones and international emergency numbers.
But the U.S. and its backers worry that the new treaty could alter the tone of debates on the internet. Instead of viewing it as a freeform network, they claim, it could increasingly be seen as a commodity that needs clear lines of oversight.
"A free and open internet with limited restrictions has been critical to its development into one of the greatest tools for empowering people to connect and share information globally," said U.S. Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, who represents part of Silicon Valley, in a statement.
"But there are countries and groups who wish to exert greater control over the internet in order to restrict or censor it for political or cultural reasons," she added. "We need to stand firm against those kinds of threats if we want the internet to continue as a vibrant engine for innovation, human rights, cultural and economic growth."
In a testament to the contentious atmosphere at the Dubai negotiations, the pages of reservations and comments by various countries were far longer than the treaty itself.
In the end, it was supported by 89 countries in the 193-member UN telecoms union. Fifty-five did not sign, including the U.S.-led bloc of more than 20 nations, and others needing home country approval. The remainder did not have high-ranking envoys in Dubai.