A primer for the UN World Telecommunication Policy Forum

When the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) organized the controversial World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) last year, the head of the body stated repeatedly and emphatically that the meeting was not about the internet.

As it turned out, he was wrong. While the treaty that WCIT produced doesn’t actually have the word “internet” in it –except in a non-binding resolution— almost every debate at the conference hinged on whether or not the internet should be included in the treaty. In fact, some countries devoted full proposals to just such an inclusion. Moreover, just because the word “internet” itself was absent from the treaty doesn’t mean that the conference wasn’t really about the internet.

Now the ITU is gearing up to host the World Telecommunication Policy Forum (WTPF) happening on May 14-16. This year’s theme is “international internet-related public policy matters” or in other words, the internet. If WCIT wasn’t about the internet, then what can we expect from WTPF — a conference explicitly about it?

Let’s break it down: what is the WTPF, why does it matter, and why and how can you get involved?

What is the WTPF?

The WTPF is a high-level international meeting held every four years that provides a venue for governments and Sector Members of the ITU (e.g., the tech industry) to discuss key policy issues in today’s telecommunications and information and communication technology (ICT) environment. At this point, that’s essentially any issue that relates to the internet.

Why is it important?

Unlike WCIT, the WTPF will not result in a new international treaty–or, for that matter, any binding outcome. Instead, the WTPF adopts non-binding opinions by consensus for consideration by ITU membership and relevant ITU meetings, and produces a final report. This all sounds rather innocuous, except that these outcomes will set in motion future discussions in major international policy making venues. This includes the ITU’s 2014 Pleinpotentiary meeting, at which a vote will be taken on whether and how to revise the ITU’s constitution, potentially bringing internet governance under the UN agency’s mandate.

The WTPF comes at a sensitive time for global internet politics. WCIT was a polarized event that highlighted rifts between governments over the fundamentals of internet policy. The final treaty the International Telecommunications Regulations, or ITRs, split the world’s governments between the 89 that signed, and the 55 that did not. Just five months after the WCIT, the WTPF could help mend those relations — or it could widen the rifts.

The WTPF could serve as an opportunity to discuss today’s most pressing issues–like the fact that two-thirds of the world’s population still does not have access to the internet–or it could become an encore performance of the political theater that was on display at WCIT.

So far, it seems that both tangible policy issues and political posturing are on the agenda at the WTPF. Below is a breakdown of some key issues to watch.

What are the main issues?

While there are a number of important issues slated to be discussed, based on the official documents available on the ITU website, Access has identified three key thematic issues to watch: multistakeholderism, enhanced cooperation, and inclusivity of communications for all. All told, these three themes have the potential to impact an open, decentralized, and multistakeholder system of internet governance and contribute to norm building regarding human rights online.

Furthermore, through the WTPF process we are seeing an effort on the part of a number of governments to assert more authority on the issue of international internet policy and internet governance, at the expense of other stakeholders.

(Our analysis draws on the fourth draft of the ITU Secretary-General’s report, the final version of which will serve as the sole basis for discussion at WCIT, and the draft opinion submitted by governments and sector members. All documents are available on the ITU’s WTPF documents page.)


In the context of internet governance, multistakeholderism refers to the recognition that relevant stakeholders–governments, the private sector, and civil society–each play an integral role in addressing technical and public policy issues related to the internet. In 2005, this principle was written into Paragraph 37 of the Tunis Agenda, the outcome document of the World Summit on Information Society, which was a high-level UN meeting on internet issues that reinforced the multistakeholder system of internet governance. This paragraph clearly states that “[a] multi-stakeholder approach should be adopted, as far as possible, at all levels.”

Yet, the recent ITU Secretary-General’s report notes that “a divergence in opinion is observed in the implementation of the WSIS multi-stakeholder model in the current Internet governance ecosystem.” The report cites Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Algeria as believing that “the role of one stakeholder – Governments – has not been allowed to evolve according to WSIS principles.” Draft opinions from Iran and Saudi Arabia echo this view. The report juxtaposes this with the view of diverse parties such as Cisco, the UK, USA, and the Internet Society (ISOC), which assert that the “current governance of the Internet is sufficiently multistakeholder and inclusive in terms of involvement of all stakeholder groups.

The Secretary-General’s report does not account for the view that civil society has not been permitted to actualize its role in multistakeholder internet governance. Civil society has historically played an important role in internet governance, but it is time and again forced to fight for its voice at intergovernmental venues like the ITU.

Enhanced Cooperation

A second issue, related to multistakeholderism, is that of enhanced cooperation. The Tunis Agenda’s explanation of “enhanced cooperation” lends itself to multiple interpretations. Paragraph 69 of the Tunis Agenda states: “We further recognize the need for enhanced cooperation in the future, to enable governments, on an equal footing, to carry out their roles and responsibilities, in international public policy issues pertaining to the Internet…” while Paragraph 71 asserts that “Relevant organizations should commence a process towards enhanced cooperation involving all stakeholders.”

The Secretary-General notes in his report that Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Algeria view enhanced cooperation as enabling governments to carry out their roles and responsibilities, while the UK focuses on the important roles of all stakeholders. Sector Members Cisco and ISOC note that participation by different stakeholders, especially civil society, could be improved in the ITU forums addressing internet policy issues. Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UK, and the US have each submitted draft opinions on enhanced cooperation.

The focus of Algeria and other countries on “equal footing” of governments is in many ways represents a push back to the fact that the US possesses more power than any other country in internet governance. The problem is that by emphasizing the role of only one stakeholder — governments — in enhanced cooperation, other stakeholders are effectively cut out. Furthermore, the countries pushing the most for an increased governmental role in internet governance do not typically include civil society and others in their decision-making, and are often some of the worst violators of digital rights.

Inclusivity of communications for all

Much like with enhanced cooperation, different countries have different perspectives on what “inclusivity” means in practice. The UK and Iran have both submitted draft opinions on “Supporting the inclusivity of communications for all,” though with decidedly different perspectives on the issue.

The UK’s draft opinion expresses the view that “freedom of expression and access to information are the cornerstones of inclusive knowledge societies;” that “information and services should be open and accessible to support knowledge based societies;” and that “Internet users should be fully empowered to exercise their fundamental rights and freedoms, make informed decisions and participate in the information society.”

On the other hand, the Iranian draft opinion states that “State Members or any enterprise functioning under their jurisdiction and within their territory shall refrain taking any unilateral decision or action in impeding other State Members to have access to Internet and Inter resources.” It also strips the UK draft’s language on human rights, such as the freedom of expression.

This divergence in views reflects a split that occurred at the end of WCIT, when after human rights language was added to the treaty’s preamble a bloc of countries supported language on a Member State’s right to access to international telecommunication. The final compromise text of this opinion at the WTPF could help set an important norm building measure for human rights online. It is important to also note that various edits to the Secretary’s draft report are inconsistent with international human rights norms, which could also contribute to the norm building process.

Other issues

A number of other important issues will be discussed, including the deployment of IPv6, promoting internet exchange points (IXPs) and broadband, as well as a draft opinion from Russia that would recognize governments’ rights to “regulate the national Internet segment…” We will address these specific issues in future analysis.

What’s next?

The preparatory process for the WTPF is just about to wrap up. A group known as the Informal Expert Group (IEG) has been meeting since June 2012 to provide policy insight and comment on the Secretary-General’s report and draft opinions. The third and final meeting of the IEG began today in Geneva and will conclude on Friday. [Disclaimer: Access joined the IEG this month, and we’re participating in this week’s meeting remotely]. If the IEG is unable to complete its work this week, its possible it will hold another, currently unscheduled, meeting between now and May ahead of the main WTPF event.

The Secretary-General is expected to publish his final report for discussion at the WTPF on March 1, which will aim to resolve some of the disagreements on the three issues of multistakeholderism, enhanced cooperation, and inclusivity of communications for all, ahead of the WTPF, which will begin on May 14.

What are the ways to participate?

As with the WCIT, the WTPF is largely a governmental exercise, with the important exception that all relevant stakeholders are able to join the IEG. For the WTPF meeting itself, members of the public with relevant expertise are able to apply to participate as “public attendants,” or observers, on a first-come, first-served basis.

Information on how to participate in the WTPF can be found on the ITU website. The form for applying to attend the WTPF as an observer can be downloaded here. The May meeting may also be webcast, check back here for details. And like the WCIT, some governments may also invite members of civil society to participate in their national delegations.

As noted previously, documents are also public, which is an improvement from the closed-door environment at the WCIT. But just being somewhat more transparent than WCIT does not mean that the WTPF is sufficiently open and multistakeholder. There is no formal process for public comment, except by joining the IEG, which is not possible for many members of civil society because of the high cost of travel and time commitment required.

Access will be working with partners in civil society to make the WTPF and future ITU meetings more transparent and open to participation from all stakeholders. We plan to attend the WTPF and will continue to provide analysis and information.