An attempt by governments to establish a worldwide policy for oversight of the internet collapsed after many Western countries said a compromise plan gave too much power to United Nations and other officials.
Delegates from Australia, the US, UK and other countries took the floor on the second-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 US must communicate that it's not able to sign the agreement in the current form," said Terry Kramer, the US ambassador to the gathering of the UN's International Telecommunication Union.
"It is greatly disappointing that a consensus could not be reached," Australia's Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said in a statement. "Australia worked hard to develop suitable text for the International Telecommunications Regulations that would have been acceptable to every member state. Unfortunately, this was not achieved."
While other countries will sign the treaty on Friday, the absence of so many of the largest economies means the document, already watered down to suit much of the West, will have little practical force.
Though technologists who had raised alarms about the proceedings preferred no deal to one that would have legitimised 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," said delegate Andrey Mukhanov, a top international official at Russia's Ministry of Telecom and Mass Communications. "That would be negative for all, and I hope our American, European colleagues come to a constructive position."
Delegates from the US and other holdout countries said they would continue to press at other international gatherings for unified 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 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 US bloc after it had agreed to a compromise deal that moved internet issues out of the main treaty and into a non-binding resolution that said 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 cover all forms of telecommunications, including voice over internet protocol (VoIP) and internet-based instant messaging services. "They are using telecom network and using telecom services," he said.
Kramer said the US 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 unwanted emails known as spam, for example, opened the door toward government monitoring and blocking of political or religious messages.
The turnabout was a defeat for ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Toure, who had previously predicted "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."
The treaty is scheduled to be signed at 1.30pm GMT on Friday (12.30am Saturday AEDT).
Reuters and Fairfax Media