December 14, 2012, 2:33 PM — Expect no major changes to the functioning of the Internet in the coming months after a controversial ending to the International Telecommunication Union's World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), but an agreement hammered out there may encourage countries to censor Web content in the longer term, participants and observers said.
WCIT, which ended Friday, will have little short-term impact on the Internet because regulations outlined in the final document won't go into effect until 2015, and countries that want to sign on will need to have their governments ratify the treaty before then.
Over the long term, however, there's some disagreement on the effect of the WCIT treaty, with some observers and participants in the discussions concerned that provisions on security and spam will give some countries cover to censor Web content. Those provisions, encouraging countries to work together to fight security problems and spam, could lead to several countries adopting restrictive content-filtering regulations, said Sally Wentworth, senior manager of public policy for the Internet Society.
"This is talking about harmonious development of international telecommunications services," Wentworth said. "Are countries looking for common security practices across borders?"
The security and spam provisions are in section 5 of the final document.
Eighty-nine of 144 eligible countries, including Russia, China, Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil, Turkey, Singapore and Saudi Arabia, signed the treaty Friday. Fifty-five countries reserved the right to sign later, but the U.S., U.K., Japan, India, Germany, Australia, Canada and Italy were among the countries indicating they would not sign the document. Others gave no indication either way.
Support for the treaty was strong among African, Arab and Latin American countries, while North America and Europe lead the charge against the treaty.
Some observers of the WCIT negotiations disagreed about the potential impact. Countries that want to censor the Internet already do so, said Dan Bart, president and CEO of IT consulting firm Valley View and former CTO of the Telecommunications Industry Association.
"Nations will do what nations will do," Bart said. "You will do what you want regardless of what a piece of paper says."
The treaty will have no impact on the Internet, predicted Milton Mueller, an information studies professor at Syracuse University and an expert on Internet governance. "The word 'Internet' does not appear" in the adopted regulations, he said by email. The spam and security provisions in the treaty are "not important at all," he added.
The language encouraging nations to "take necessary steps" to prevent spam offers countries no new powers, Mueller said.