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PAC 81 – The American Globalisation of the Internet The Failure of the Dubai Global Summit on Telecommunications

By Alexandre Bohas

Passage au crible n°81


The ITU conference (International Telecommunication Union) ended in December 2012 by a disagreement among Member States concerning the type of regulation for the Internet. However, this lack of consensus turns out to be decisive for the future of the sector while it reveals antagonisms of powers and worldviews.

Historical background
Theoretical framework

Historical background

Since the end of the 19th century, the ITU regulates telegraph, telephone and radiotelephony, in particular through the attribution of radio frequencies. It was placed under the control of the United Nations after the Second World War, and is still often considered as a specialized and technical organisation. Yet, this conception was questioned in the Seventies by the partisans of the New Information and Telecommunication World Order who underlined the political dimensions.

Although the Internet has developed out of this organization, it belongs to the domains of information and communication technologies. It is managed by a non-profit organization based in California, the ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). This body deals with, on the one hand, the systems of domain names and, on the other hand, the coordination of actions in favour of security, stability and unity within this virtual space. Its functions confer upon it a considerable influence with the introduction of this medium in every social, economic and political sphere. This is the reason why China, Russia, Saudi Arabia wished to integrate it in the regime of the ITU despite the opposition of Western nations. To justify this decision, they invoked the right of each government to manage “Internet numbering, naming, addressing and identification resources” 1. After the vote of the proposition by a majority of States, 55 states led by the United States refused to sign a treaty including such an enlargement of competences which, according to them, would threaten the governance model and the unity of the Internet.

Theoretical framework

The international system as a “historical bloc”. According to the holistic perspective of Gramsci, the global sphere would be marked by the domination of hegemonic coalitions, with economic, social, institutional and ideological bases (Robert Cox and Stephen Gill). From this perspective, States would constitute nothing but heterogeneous superstructures, stakes of power conflicts, whereas transnational interests, organisations and groups would engender global structure. The advantage of this paradigm is to identify changes in the system as much as to escape from the state-centred tropism.

The global governances at the service of the American preponderance. Globalisation favours the rise of “formal and informal processes et institutions, whereby rules are created, compliance is elicited, and goods are provided in pursuit of collective goals” 2. Non-state actors are fully recognized to the detriment of governments which lose their privileged status. These types of hybrid public regulations ratify new balances of power while they reinforce a configuration of the international arena favourable to the United States.


Conflicts on the Internet highlight the scope of the upheavals that are provoked by this medium in developing countries. Resulting from Western technology and discoveries, its use implies values such as freedom of speech and equality among users as much as interdependencies and transnational solidarities. In addition, its contents are available everywhere in the world and project ideologies, specific representations, and living standards. In this respect, its socio-cultural dimensions are transmitted in the rest of the world through its global expansion. Hence the distrust, even the opposition, of governing elites whose regimes enter into contradiction with messages delivered on the web. Indeed, the latter thwarts the pillars of their power by exposing them as illegitimate and by allowing increased means of action to skilled individuals. With this concept, the late James Rosenau wanted to underline growing capacities and resources of individuals on the global scene.

In addition, this opposition to the building of a numerical space unveils a reaction of Nation States against the proliferation of transnational bodies of governance where they are overstepped by non-state actors and processes. Compared to an international organization, these bodies favour implicitly civil societies. For example, the direction of the ICANN is composed of a council of sixteen members who represent all the stakeholders of the Internet: computer sectors, internet-user communities, e-business companies, notably through the Generic Names Supporting Organization and the At-Large Advisory Committee; whereas States are only associated with an advising role, thanks to the Government Advisory Committee. Although they are present, they remain without a privileged status. In other words, they are bypassed by this organization which maintains direct bonds with members of civil societies – technical specialists, militants, internet users and economic operators – thanks to regular meetings and participation within nomination and decision organs.

We could add that authoritarian states prove to be structurally weak in these configurations due to constraints that they imposed on their social groups. In doing so, global governance favours America, which is characterized by the dynamism and the diversity of its society. This mode of regulation insures it a de facto preponderance faced with the rise of state power which is led by strong men, an accelerated growth and sovereign funds. As a consequence, it contributes institutionally to forming the American “historical bloc”. In denouncing the agreement of Dubai, the United States are the spokesman of Western economic interests with their information and communication technologies constituting the spearhead. Besides, the free exercise of the Internet consolidates the competition advantages of its large firms which are already fully developed. Finally, its defence of the Internet brings it support and recognition from Western opinions, freedom militants but also silent internet users in emerging countries. Consequently, it gains the implicit consent of a hegemonic type which contributes to the expansion of its international system.

This study leads us to establish relationships between the evolution of international institutions and the structuration of the global sphere. Only a systemic perspective makes it possible to identify these links, which allows us to introduce politics in these governmental transformations which are reportedly only functional.


Cox Robert W., Sinclair Timothy J., Approaches to World Order, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Garber Megan, “How the UN’s ‘Game-Changing’ Internet Treaty Failed”, Atlantic online, 14 Dec. 2012.
Gill Stephen, Gramsci, Historical Materialism and International Relations, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993.
“Global Internet Diplomacy” The New York Times, 14 Dec. 2012.
ICANN, Nominative Committee. Final Report, 2012, available at the page: http://nomcom.icann.org.
Kelley Lee, Global Telecommunications Regulation: A Political Economy Perspective, London, Pinter, 1996.
IUT, Final Acts. Conference on International Telecommunications, 3-14 Dec. 2012, available at the page: www.itu.int/en/wcit-12.
Koppell Jonathan, “Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers”, in: Held David, Hale Thomas, The Handbook of Transnational Governance: Institutions and Innovations, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2011, pp. 176-182.
Rosenau James N., Turbulence in World Politics: a Theory of Change and Continuity, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1990.
“UN Telecom Treaty Approved Against U.S. Web-Censorship Concerns”, The Washington Post, 13 Dec. 2012.

1. Garber Megan, “How the UN’s ‘Game-Changing’ Internet Treaty Failed”, Atlantic online, 14 Dec. 2012.
2. David Held, Thomas Hale, The Handbook of Transnational Governance: Institutions and Innovations, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2011, p. 12.