Internet turns U.N. telecoms talks into reality show

PARIS/DUBAI Fri Dec 14, 2012 1:29am IST

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PARIS/DUBAI (Reuters) - If the 1,500 delegates huddled into a Dubai conference centre to thrash out a new global telecommunications treaty didn't know how it felt to be on a reality TV show, they do now.

The high-level diplomats and regulators from 150 countries have been criticised, mocked and - just occasionally - lauded by an online commentariat following proceedings at the U.N.'s World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) this week.

Predictably, many of the bloggers and tweeters have taken aim at those seeking to tame the online world, as a battle rages between the United States and its allies, which want no mention of the Internet in regulations, and a Russia-led block which is calling for a more active role for governments.

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

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

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

"This is truly farcical," tweeted Kieren McCarthy, a writer for .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 debate over the arcane International Telecommunications Regulations, which were last updated in 1988 - before the internet and mobile phones - and once set technical standards and fees charged for global phone calls.

A loose collection of advocates have honed their skills in recent years via skirmishes over content piracy and online privacy, and now firms like Google (GOOG.O) and Facebook (FB.O) spend as much on lobbyists as older cousin Microsoft (MSFT.O).

MOVING TO THE BAR

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

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

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

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

"I have referred the paper back to my capital (means: I haven'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 to webcast the main sessions was widely commended, even by critics, and it has hired social media consultants to advise it on getting its message out.

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

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

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

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

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

"If they webcast the working groups where most of the hard negotiations take place, I'm sure all the juicy stuff would just move to the watercooler or bar instead," he said.

(Reporting by Leila Abboud and Matt Smith; Editing by Mark Potter)

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