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International communications law

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International communications law consists primarily of a number of bilateral and multilateral communications treaties. The most significant of these treaties is the International Telecommunications Convention of 1982 (ITC), which has over 140 parties and which became effective for the United States in 1986. This agreement, often referred to as the Nairobi Convention, is the latest in a series of widely adhered to multilateral telecommunications conventions signed in this century, which were preceded by multilateral agreements in the late 1800s providing protection for submarine cables.

The current series of agreements establishes the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which has the status of a specialized agency of the United Nations, and they invest the ITU with the authority to formulate telegraph and telephone regulations which become binding legal obligations upon formal acceptance by ITU member nations. These agreements also establish mutual legal obligations among the parties, several of which are directly relevant to information operations.

Perhaps the most significant of these obligations is in Article 35, which provides that all radio “stations, whatever their purpose, must be established and operated in such a manner as not to cause harmful interference to the radio services or communications of other Members or of recognized private operating agencies, which carry on radio service, and which operate in accordance with the provisions of the Radio Regulations.”

“Harmful interference” is defined in Annex 2 to the Convention as “interference which endangers the functioning of a radio navigation service or of other safety services or seriously degrades, obstructs or repeatedly interrupts a radio communication service operating in accordance with the Radio Regulations.” One of the clearest violations of this provision would be the jamming or “spoofing” of a radio navigation service.

Without speculating on all the possible permutations of the application of this provision to the broad range of information operations, suffice it to say that this provision on its face would appear to restrict many such operations that involve the use of radio broadcasting.

The ITC provides specific authority for its member nations to interfere with international telecommunications in certain circumstances:

  • Article 19 allows members to “stop the transmission of any private telegram which may appear dangerous to the security of the State or contrary to their laws, to public order or to decency, provided that they immediately notify the office of origin of the stoppage of any such telegram or part thereof, except when such notification may appear dangerous to the security of the State.”
  • Article 19 also permits members to “cut off any other private telecommunications which may appear dangerous to the security of the State or contrary to its laws, to public order or to decency.”
  • Article 20 reserves the right of members “to suspend the international telecommunication service for an indefinite time, either generally or only for certain relations and/or certain kinds of correspondence, outgoing, incoming or in transit, provided that it immediately notifies such action to each of the other Members through the medium of the Secretary-General.”

The United States has not entered into bilateral communications agreements with many nations, primarily because the ITC and the ITU provide a framework for handling most international communications issues. As one might expect, the need for bilateral communications agreements has arisen for the United States primarily with Canada and Mexico, because of the potential for interference in broadcast communications across our common borders.

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