“By creating a new cold war, we are making everyone a loser, it is a no-win situation. The best way to win a war is to avoid it in the first place,” said Hamadoun Touré, secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).
He was referring to a stalemate last December, when 193 countries debated changes to the International Telecommunications Regulations in Dubai. Touré was among the speakers at this week's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.
The ITU organised a 12-day conference in December to revise a communications treaty last overhauled in 1988, but the EU joined the United States and Canada in refusing to sign up to the treaty changes, creating a divide with the rest of the world.
Dubai saw argument about ‘over-the-top’ providers
The new treaty was supposed to help nations coordinate efforts against spam and widen access to the internet. But discussions focused on the controversial issue of whether or not countries should have equal rights to the development of the internet's technical foundations.
The US was concerned that references to the internet in the treaty might be used to legitimise censorship and – more controversially – enable commercial negotiations between telecom networks and so-called ‘over-the-top providers’, especially large internet content providers such as Google and Microsoft.
That could open the way for search and social media companies to be charged levies for their use of broadband capacity.
The development caused quarrels in the telecommunications and internet industries, exposing highly political global trade and commercial strains, instead of paving the way for clearer global standards.
“Unfortunately in Dubai I have noticed a new cold war. We have to work hard together to make sure that it doesn’t happen,” Touré said in a speech at the Broader Way Forum, organised in Barcelona by Huawei, the China-headquartered tech company.
Rare public outburst by UN chief
“I have seen also a new war north-south, which is unfortunate. Is it the financial crisis in the northern countries that is making them lose their soul?” Touré asked.
In an unusual public outpouring, the UN chief lamented that the Dubai stalemate crystallised after a rare vote, which highlighted disagreement between the US and EU, and most other states, and also contravened the UN body’s conventions.
The ITU usually agrees matters by consensus without putting issues to a show of hands amongst its member states.
“We do not vote on real issues and that culture is embedded and we are proud of it, and I don’t want to see the [ITU] losing that,” Touré said.
He highlighted the dangers of hostilities breaking out over internet topics at a time when sensitive issues surrounding cyber security and data protection are being debated around the world.
“And that’s why we need to talk about some real issues: security, cyber security, is a real problem that is touching our governments, our institutions, our companies and our children. We need to talk about them,” Touré explained.
European industry seeks solution
“The discussion in Dubai was very complex and difficult, with several layers of discussion,” Luigi Gambardella, the chairman of the federation representing the key European telecommunications network operators, ETNO, told EurActiv at the Mobile World Congress.
“We would like to work in a way in which the entire [telecoms and internet] ecosystem can flourish, and everyone can benefit in a situation in which the different players can continue to invest and make their proposals to their customers in a very positive way,” Gambardella said.