It was said to be designed to help nations co-ordinate efforts to widen access to the web. But a stalemate has been reached over the UN treaty which was meant to provide the first major review of the telecommunications agenda since 1988.
Discussions over the nature of the internet and who is responsible for its growth and governance have really split countries into two ideological groups.
The UN International Telecommunication Union (ITU) had said before negotiations in Dubai that it was sure it could deliver a consensus.
But even though the ITU doesn’t actually have the power to change the way the internet operates or force countries to follow its accords, a group led by the US has decided not to sign because of fears the treaty could change the nature of debate within the UN in future.
The US says its main concern is that signing would give a UN stamp of approval to state censorship and regulation of the internet and private networks. The US, along with Canada, Australia and the UK, are part of a group of around 20 countries refusing to sign.
But a group of rival nations, including Iran, China and African states, say the Western grip on information technology must be loosened and that governments ought to have greater powers over Internet affairs.
It marks a difference in attitudes to technology in the different countries with even what you would have thought would be clear-cut issues like stopping unsolicited spam bringing division.
American envoys and others said trying to stop blanket electronic messages could actually be used to increase surveillance on email traffic.
It’s perhaps no wonder that no agreement has been reached when you consider the huge differences individual governments have. In North Korea, for example, Internet-use is incredibly restricted with many of the country’s 24 million people unable to get online. Just members of the elite, resident foreigners and visitors in certain hotels are allowed full access.
In Iran, most Western social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are blocked, whereas in Cuba tight control, slow connections and high costs mean only around five per cent of Cubans have access to the global internet with another 23 per cent having a government intranet with limited content.
Hamadoun Toure, who is the ITU’s secretary-general said the clash came down to what he described as a digital divide, with citizens of wealthy countries able to access the Net, with 4.5 bn others in poor nations not having the same “rights.”
“We are defending here the right to communicate as a basic human right,” he said. “That’s something very important in the ITU. We so remind our members constantly of that obligation.”
But Terry Kramer, who was the head of the US delegation, said: “Internet policy should not be determined by member states but by citizens, communities and broader society… the private sector and civil society. That has not happened here.”