An attempt by national governments to establish a worldwide policy for oversight of the Internet collapsed on Thursday after many Western countries said a compromise plan gave too much power to United Nations and other officials.
Delegates from the United States, UK, Australia and other countries took the floor on the next to last day of a UN conference in Dubai to reject revisions to a treaty governing international phone calls and data traffic.
"It's with a heavy heart and a sense of missed opportunities that the U.S. must communicate that it's not able to sign the agreement in the current form," said Terry Kramer, the U.S. ambassador to the gathering of the UN's International Telecommunication Union.
While other countries will sign the treaty on Friday, the absence of so many of the largest economies means that the document, already watered down to suit much of the West, will have little practical force. "It will bring some legal concerns between countries that have and haven't signed the treaty," said a South American delegate who declined to be identified.
Though technologists who had raised alarms about the proceedings preferred no deal to one that would have legitimized more government censorship and surveillance, the failure to reach an accord could increase the chance that the Internet will work very differently in different regions.
"Maybe in the future we could come to a fragmented Internet," delegate Andrey Mukhanov, a top international official at Russia's Ministry of Telecom and Mass Communications, told Reuters. "That would be negative for all, and I hope our American, European colleagues come to a constructive position."
Delegates from the United States and other holdout countries said they would continue to press at other international gatherings in support of what they call a "multi-stakeholder model," in which private industry groups set standards and play a large role in the development of the medium.
Countries that had been seeking an expansion of the ITU role reacted with some bitterness to the failure to reach a consensus.
Tariq al-Awadhi of the United Arab Emirates, head of the Arab States' delegation, said his group had been "double-crossed" by the U.S. bloc after it had agreed to a compromise deal that moved Internet issues out of the main treaty and into a nonbinding resolution saying the ITU should be part of the multi-stakeholder model.
"Unfortunately, those countries breached the compromise package and destroyed it totally," said Awadhi. "We have given everything and are not getting anything."
Awadhi said the treaty should have covered all forms of telecommunications, including voice over Internet protocol and Internet-based instant messaging services. "They are using telecom network and using telecom services," he said.
Kramer told reporters that the United States had negotiated in good faith but that there were several issues that made agreement impossible, including the resolution's recognition of an ITU role.
He said a section on reducing the unwanted emails known as spam, for example, opened the door toward government monitoring and blocking of political or religious messages.
One of the last major sources of U.S. objection, a clause that might have given countries the right to administer website addresses, was struck from the treaty during attempts to salvage the deal.
The turnabout was a defeat for ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré, who had previously predicted that "light-touch" Internet regulation would emerge from the conference.
But he said the 12-day meeting "has succeeded in bringing unprecedented public attention to the different and important perspectives that govern global communications."
Among the countries that said they could not sign, at least without consulting officials in their capitals, were most nations in Western Europe along with Canada, Philippines, Poland, Egypt, Kenya and Czech Republic.
The U.S. bloc's coordinated snub followed a vote that approved an African proposal to add a sentence in a treaty relating to human rights.
Western delegates said that effectively reintroduced a contentious proposal that had said no country should be allowed to unilaterally deny another country access to communications networks, which they said stretched too far into the political realm.
"We prefer no resolution on the Internet at all, and I'm extremely concerned that the language just adopted opens the possibility of Internet and content issues," Simon Towler, head of the UK delegation, said after the African proposal was passed.
The treaty is scheduled to be signed at 1330 GMT on Friday.