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WCIT WATCH: Day 8 Roundup

1:14am | 11 December 2012 | by Deborah Brown, English

Since Friday’s plenary session, the big question at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) has been whether or not the joint Russia, UAE, China, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan (RUCASS) proposal would see the light of day and change the course of the conference. Although the RUCASS proposal turned out to be dead on arrival, it may have still been a game changer. Seeing the potential that the proposal had to disrupt negotiations, WCIT Chairman Mohammad Al-Ghanim managed to suppress it altogether, and decided instead to work with the heads of regional groups to draft a new consensus text based off the work of Committee 5, which may be the base treaty text for negotiation.

In addition to pushing the negotiations into a closed door meeting, the RUCASS non-proposal had another interesting effect: it compelled Egypt to make a strong statement against expanding the scope of the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs). Because Egypt’s name was attached to the leaked copy that was circulating over the weekend, without its consent, Egypt felt the need to clear its name. It stated in the plenary that “the ITRs are and should continue to be a high-level treaty discussing high-level principles” and that content regulation and censorship are not within the scope of the ITRs. Given that the proposal wasn’t even mentioned in the plenary, there was no obvious reason to bring it up at that moment, except that plenaries are public and webcast, which underlines the importance of transparency at the WCIT. The full transcript of Monday's plenary can be accessed here.

The heads of regional groups met with Al-Ghanim on Monday night and they are expected to have a draft consensus text for discussion on Tuesday. The fear is that even though the RUCASS proposal is off the table, the many dangerous proposals from which it was comprised are still fair game. Tomorrow’s plenary sessions will be streamed live (starting at 11 am local time) and archived here.

Monday was Human Rights Day, the 64th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and appropriately governments at the WCIT took the decision to discuss adding human rights language in the preamble of the ITRs. Unlike in previous discussions on this topic, very few countries voiced objections. Australia took the floor to say that it would need to consult its capital for feedback. The US stated that it cannot support the current formulation, but would discuss revising the text to find human rights language that it could support. Given that the US’s approach to avoiding the expansion of the ITRs to the internet has been to avoid any language that goes beyond the treaty’s initial scope, this may indicate a shift in strategy. 

Sweden, meanwhile, made a forceful case for why human rights language is appropriate for a technical treaty. Recognizing that “even a technical treaty may have human rights implications” , Sweden voiced concern that “some of the proposals tabled at this conference may have unintended consequences for the member states on human rights obligations”. Sweden added that it has come to the WCIT in the spirit of compromise and is ready to continue engage in constructive negotiations, however "there are some areas in which we are not prepared to compromise, the universal human rights is one of them.” Sweden's full remarks can be accessed here.

For civil society in Dubai, Monday offered a rare chance to meet with ITU Secretary General Touré. At Touré’s invitation, over 20 civil society representatives at the WCIT addressed their concerns on matters of process and substance directly to the Secretary General. The civil society representatives- from national delegations, sector delegations, and unaffiliated- had delivered a letter to Touré and Al-Ghanim the previous day, calling their attention to barriers to genuine and independent civil society at the WCIT. They called on Touré to address the lack of any official standing to the public comments solicited prior to the WCIT; the lack of access to and transparency of working groups, particularly the working groups of Committee 5; and the absence of mechanisms to encourage independent civil society participation. The letter was signed by 50 organizations from over 20 countries, as well as international and regional organizations.

On substance, they pointed Touré’s attention to a widely endorsed statement drafted by civil society ahead of the UN Internet Governance Forum in Baku. The Best Bits statement urged delegates to confine any proposed revisions to the traditional scope of the ITRs and to avoid adopting language that would involve regulation of the Internet Protocol and the layers above, or that could have a negative impact on affordable access to the Internet or the public's rights to privacy and freedom of expression. Civil society in Dubai underscored that some of the language under consideration at the WCIT is not in line with this criteria.

The Secretary General noted that a number of the concerns, both on process and substance, would need the approval of member states, but expressed willingness to engage with civil society in the future and continue the positive, constructive dialogue.

The revised text of the ITRs should be drafted and finalized in the coming days and Access will continue to provide a daily WCIT WATCH blog analyzing and detailing the proposed and accepted changes.