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WCIT WATCH: Day 2 Roundup

1:06pm | 4 December 2012 | by Deborah Brown, English

DUBAI -- Tuesday’s discussion of freedom of expression online at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai gave rise to a rather odd set of positions and alliances. Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab Spring, proposed an addition to the treaty text under consideration to enshrine the right to freedom of expression online in the International Telecommunication Regulations. The U.S., European Union, China, Iran, and others opposed the new language; the United Arab Emirates and Qatar (and Poland, reluctantly) backed it.

But of course that’s not the full story.

All governments insisted that they support human rights, online and off (regardless of whether they actually respect those rights). They took issue largely with whether it is appropriate to include human rights language in the ITRs, since proposal was being considered in the context of Article 1, which deals with the scope of the treaty.

There are two levels to this argument.

The first is a straightforward, narrow read of the scope of the treaty. The ITRs deal with the interconnection of international networks, not human rights. As Cyprus noted on behalf of the EU, “Other International laws and provisions and charters stand on their own." Therefore, given that the ITU is a UN body and under the orbit of the UN Charter, which encourages “respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms” there is no justification for including a human rights language in the ITRs.

The second is a more complex read of the scope of the treaty. The Tunisian proposal made explicit references to “telecommunication/ICTs” and the exercise of freedom of expression both online and offline. The issue of modifying the definition of telecommunications to include ICTs and the internet is one of the most contentious of WCIT. The issue is currently under debate in informal meetings, and for those who prefer to limit the definition to traditional telecommunications and not extend it to include the internet, adopting the Tunisian proposal would be unwise as it would include ICTs in the ITRs, albeit in a positive way.

Additionally, a number of governments view the purpose of the ITRs as purely assuring the interoperability of underlying telecommunications systems that enable communications, not the content of the communications that flow over them. They fear that bringing in issues like freedom of expression would open the door to a larger discussion of content, which is a very sensitive issue globally.

But Tunisia made a spirited case for its proposal, invoking Syria’s cutting off of the internet last week. This led the Chairman of WCIT and the Secretary General of the ITU to settle on a press release on the topic, which states that WCIT delegates “overwhelmingly supported the importance of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirming the right of all people to freedom of opinion and expression, including the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” (The Secretary General’s eagerness to issue a press release to shape the media narrative around WCIT may be an unintended result of scrutiny from the press in the lead up to the conference.)

The Tunisian proposal may not be dead however. Some formulation of the proposal could resurface as it also proposes language under Article 5A, which deals with cybersecurity issues. A number of governments and civil society groups oppose the inclusion of cybersecurity language in the treaty, in part because it could legitimize dangerous responses to cybercrime, spam, and other ills. So the Tunisian proposal could come in handy in those negotiations.

Check the Access blog for more WCIT WATCH updates. For more information, also see Access’s brief on freedom of expression concerns raised by revisions to the ITRs for more information and What to Watch at WCIT for analysis of key issues and positions. 

More:

WCIT Watch: Day 1
WCIT Watch: Committee Breakdown
Access ITU Resource Page