The United Nation’s International Telecommunications Union sent shock waves across the Internet with an agreement approved last night which would give countries a right to access international telecommunications services including Internet traffic.

(This story was updated a 4:30 p.m. ET to include additional reporting.)

While the U.S., Canada, Australia, Norway, Denmark, and other countries refused to go along with the measure, the motion carried in a decision that caught many by surprise and now leaves organizations around the world who provide services that rely on the Internet in a sudden state of limbo.

I was on the phone with a number of businesses that have employees and operations in multiple countries and a satellite communications equipment provider all of whom expressed concern that companies will put projects on hold and take a wait-and-see approach until there are answers to the many questions that the ITU action created!

The ITU action opens up a fundamental rift between those nation’s who appreciate the economic power of an open Internet and those who would seek to control the Internet for more political reasons.

ITU director general Hamadoun Toure expressed surprise with the US, UK and other nations for walking out of a vote to approve a new UN telecoms treaty, the first update to international regulation of the industry in 24 years. “I couldn’t imagine they wouldn’t sign it,” he said, insisting that the Internet and content were not part of the discussion.

At issue is a provision outlined in Article 5B of the treaty, which reads: “Member states should endeavour to take necessary measures to prevent the propagation of unsolicited bulk electronic communications and minimize its impact on international telecommunication services.”

Exactly what was intended by the ITU’s controversial provision remains somewhat in question, but it was clear from much of the interpretation that it was intended, among other things, to support actions by individual governments that focus on monitoring (plainly speaking, to intercept and read) Internet traffic packets. That would include emails, financial transactions (https traffic) or phone calls (VoIP and hard wired) without worrying about restrictions.

Sources knowledgeable about this go as far as to suggest that some governments want to create the ability to read encrypted communications as well. Technology and cyber intelligence subject matter experts (SME) say this would require access to encryption keys or possibly a “master encryption key.”

Either way, many of those familiar with the evolution of the Internet believe that is a very dangerous aspect of the ITU’s action.

The ITU is a United Nations agency that regulates international telecommunications and traditionally set out to standardize telephone services. It is made up of representatives of 193 Governments that are members of the UN. The regulatory measure is known as Y.2770 referred to as “Requirements for deep packet inspection.”

One expert went as far as to say that even if new techniques are used, such as quantum encryption or biometric encryption (that is thought to be unbreakable), it is likely if the government doing the monitoring intercepted a message they could not read, they would just block the transmission and delete the packets!

I would take that to the next step and suggest they would actually identify the source of that sophisticated communication and put them under increased scrutiny.

Points to consider

How all of this will shake out remains to be seen, but here are just a sampling of issues that will now need to be considered in light of the ITU’s move:

– What about all the private or sensitive emails our government sends to government employees stationed in foreign countries?

– How will they do this when point to point satellite communications is the method of connectivity?

– What about sensitive communications of U.S. corporations to its staff and remote offices in foreign countries that contain competitive data or research and development information?

– Since the cyber activists of Anonymous took action during the ITU meeting, will the group become much more aggressive given the adoption of these Internet control measures?

There are so many questions and so few answers. One thing is certain this is far from the vision of the Internet we had when I was at Netscape!

Kevin G. Coleman is a long-time security technology executive. He is a senior fellow with the Technolytics Institute, the former chief strategist at Netscape and writes periodically for Breaking Gov on the topic of cyber intelligence. (Breaking Gov’s Wyatt Kash contributed additional reporting to this story.)

Photo: Hamadoun Toure (C), secretary general of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), addresses a joint press conference on the final day of the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) in the Gulf emirate of Dubai on December 14, 2012.