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Internet Turns UN Telecoms Talks Into Reality Show

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Hamadoun Toure, Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), speaks during a press conference as Mohamed al-Ghanim, Chairman of the World Conference on International Telecommunication listens on during the final day of the WCIT-12 in Dubai.
Karim Sahib | AFP | Getty Images

If the 1,500 delegateshuddled into a Dubai conference center to thrash out a newglobal telecommunications treaty didn't know how it felt to beon a reality TV show, they do now.

The high-level diplomats and regulators from 150 countrieshave been criticized, mocked and - just occasionally - lauded byan online commentariat following proceedings at the U.N.'s WorldConference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) this week.

Predictably, many of the bloggers and tweeters have takenaim at those seeking to tame the online world, as a battle ragesbetween the United States and its allies, which want no mentionof the Internet in regulations, and a Russia-led block which iscalling for a more active role for governments.

But there's also criticism of the way the United Nationsgoes about its business, with a Wikileaks-inspired website-dubbed WCITleaks - spawned to shine a light on what itconsiders the conference's opaqueness.

Once-confidential preparatory documents filed by countriesincluding Russia, the United States, and Iran were uploaded tothe site in the run-up to the conference, and during the talksthe working drafts have all been put online for perusal.

And then there's the hilarity sparked by the absurd - likethe sight of delegates voting on communications regulations inthe digital age by holding up yellow cards to be counted.

"This is truly farcical," tweeted Kieren McCarthy, a writerfor .Nxt, an website which covers internet policy.

"There must be a relevant Monty Python sketch for this."

The cyber-scrutiny has introduced new voices to the debateover the arcane International Telecommunications Regulations,which were last updated in 1988 - before the internet and mobilephones - and once set technical standards and fees charged forglobal phone calls.

A loose collection of advocates have honed their skills inrecent years via skirmishes over content piracy and onlineprivacy, and now firms like Google and Facebookspend as much on lobbyists as older cousin Microsoft .

Moving to the Bar

The UN conference makes an easy target with its penchant forcoded diplomatic language.

Harold Feld, legal director of advocacy group PublicKnowledge which supports an open internet, produced a guide forthe uninitiated explaining, for example, how delegates' practiceof sticking text that has not been agreed inside square bracketshas led them to use the term as a verb.

"To 'square bracket' something means to take an exception toincluding it," he wrote in a blog post.

Veni Markovski, a Bulgarian Internet entrepreneur, tweetedtranslations of some of his favourite diplomatic phrases.

"I have referred the paper back to my capital (means: Ihaven't read it, but perhaps they will)," he wrote.

"An interesting proposal (It will go nowhere)."

"A comprehensive submission (It's over 2 pages in length,and seems to have an awful lot of headings)."

The conference has tried to stay with the times. Its move towebcast the main sessions was widely commended, even by critics,and it has hired social media consultants to advise it ongetting its message out.

It has also started posting documents online for the nextmajor internet policy conference in May. However, many of thedraft documents from this week are unavailable - a spokesman forthe conference referred journalists to WCITleaks for access.

Individual delegates have also struggled to cope. While thehundreds of photos of them posted online show most at work,there are those fiddling with their phones or looking sleepy andrumpled after hours of talks.

Jerry Brito, one of the co-creators of WCITleaks, said thereal-time commentary was having an effect. "If nothing else, itis a constant reminder to the delegations that the world iswatching and their meeting is not as secret as others have beenin the past," said Brito, a senior research fellow at theMercatus Center at George Mason University.

"We hope our site won't be necessary next time around, butwe will be available to make public any secret documents."

However, telecoms consultant Dean Bubley was skeptical whether such meetings could ever be totally transparent.

"If they webcast the working groups where most of the hardnegotiations take place, I'm sure all the juicy stuff would justmove to the water cooler or bar instead," he said.