Civil society proposes ITU CWG-Internet Reform: participation and transparency chief concerns

Deborah Brown contributed to this post

Update: The ITU Council has rejected proposals to open up the Council Working Group on Internet Related Public Policy Issues (CWG-Internet) at its most recent session.

A proposal from civil society endorsed by 37 organizations was not considered as an information document for the meeting, however ITU members the United States, Poland and Sweden each submitted proposals aligned with the goals of improving ITU transparency and participation.

Procedures suggested to facilitate a more “open, transparent, and multistakeholder debate” included inviting stakeholders to meetings at least 90 days ahead and establishing clear procedures for submitting official documents and requesting the floor and debate with remote participation.

The proposal failed despite support from some member states including those from the developing world, as US Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information Strickling highlighted last week in his remarks at Columbia University’s Institute for Tele-Information.

Despite the proposal’s failure, Secretary General Touré’s Closing Remarks in Geneva to the ITU Council expressed a desire to engage stakeholders in civil society:

Council confirmed that the Secretary-General can carry out or facilitate informal consultations with stakeholders. I look forward to engaging with all stakeholders on international Internet public policy-related matters and to bringing the essence of these discussions to the Council Working Group on this issue for information.

Later that day, Touré committed to personally consulting with civil society, and bringing their concerns back to the CWG-Internet.

While we appreciate Toure’s openness to meeting with civil society, this type of informal consultation is not nearly the type of change many hoped for in Geneva. Essentially, the status quo remains unchanged. Civil society participation remains limited to advising the Secretary General or their National delegations, which isn’t really participation at all. These exclusionary methods are neither in the interest of ITU member states nor other relevant stakeholders.

Concerns for greater transparency were also unanswered, as documents will still not be available freely for public scrutiny online. The issues of increasing participation at the CWG-Internet and improving the ITU’s transparency will be tabled until 20th October 2014, when the ITU convenes its Plenipotentiary Session in Busan, Republic of Korea.

Members of civil society, including Access, submitted a proposal last Monday to the governing body of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the ITU Council, calling for more steps to be taken “to meet the goal of an open, transparent, and multistakeholder debate” at the upcoming Working Group on International Internet-related public policy issues (CWG-Internet). The ITU Council meeting, convened in the interval between Plenipotentiary Conferences, may determine whether or not CWG-Internet will become more inclusive. These developments will set the stage for October 2014’s ITU Plenipotentiary Conference, where the legally binding ITU constitution and convention will be renegotiated.

The proposal has garnered the support of 37 organizations and individuals from all regions of the world.

Currently, participation in CWG-Internet is limited to Member States and key documents, such as the proposals under consideration, are stored behind an online paywall. Such measures prevent transparency, which ITU Secretary General Touré, in his concluding remarks to the WTPF, explicitly promised to promote by raising the issue of broadening CWG-Internet membership at the ITU Council session which is now underway.

Civil society recommendations
The joint proposal recommended:

  • Outlining clear procedures for inviting stakeholders to Council Working Groups, at least 90 days prior to the relevant meeting dates.
  • Issuing clear procedures for all the stakeholders to submit official documents for consideration.
  • Establishing mechanisms for remote participation, allowing not only remote participants to follow the debate, but also to request the floor.

A number of Member States also support more openness and transparency in the ITU, as reflected by four proposals calling for greater openness being debated at the current ITU session from the United States, Poland, and dual proposals from Sweden (available here and here). The US and Swedish proposals both call for greater transparency, proposing that more documentation be freely accessible in relation to CWG-Internet and October’s Plenipotentiary 2014. Ironically, civil society was only able to learn of these highly relevant proposals because they were anonymously leaked to

Further, the US and Poland propose amending relevant documents and resolutions to open up the Council Working Group to a greater number of stakeholders, including civil society, in an open, transparent, and inclusive environment. The Polish proposal asserts “Member States are only one of the stakeholders interested and engaged in the process. Input from other entities dealing with these issues will surely foster the discussion and provide more generous information on specific issues.” These changes could be facilitated by amending Council Resolutions 1336 and 1344, as suggested by the United States, or by amending Council Resolution 102 and any additionally relevant documents to achieve greater openness, as suggested by Poland.

Small steps toward inclusivity
The ITU has already taken a commendable step toward greater inclusivity by establishing the Informal Experts Group (IEG) in preparation for last May’s World Telecommunication/ICT Policy Forum (WTPF). In stark contrast to 2012’s exclusionary WCIT, which limited civil society to participating through their national delegations or as public observers, the IEG made possible some civil society participation as independent actors at the WTPF.

However, the shared goal of engaging governments, the private sector, and civil society together in dialogue could not be fully realized through this process, given a lack of clarity on modes of participation. Despite this, few members of civil society were able to take advantage of this important opportunity, as the invitation to participate in the IEG was extended very late in the process with very short notice. Additionally, because it was not made clear that IEG members would also have participation rights at the WTPF, the unclear modalities of the IEG had the compounding effect of limiting civil society participation at the WTPF itself.

Finally, while contributions from IEG members who were not members of the ITU were accepted into the official record for the meeting as “information documents”, they were not considered for debate at the WTPF. And documents from civil society outside of the IEG, such as a statement endorsed by 39 civil society groups and individuals from all regions, could not be submitted at all.

We believe the next step in this evolution is for the ITU Council to broaden participation in the Council Working Group-Internet. This enlargement should be informed by the success of the IEG model, but must also be reformed in light of the model’s own shortcomings. Merely opening the door to more stakeholders to attend meetings is not a sufficient mode of inclusion.

Several improvements to the IEG model are needed to maximize civil society’s participation and contribution. Civil Society’s proposal, which was sent to the ITU Secretary-General Touré and several ITU members, therefore calls for greater multistakeholder participation in the ITU by carrying forward positive aspects of the IEG model as well as reforming it to be further inclusive.

Inclusive and transparent ITU processes are necessary to uphold and protect the public interest and fundamental human rights – rights which recent headlines remind us are being constantly challenged. Increasing participation in CWG-Internet is an essential first step. However, to achieve a more open, transparent and truly multistakeholder process, why not also extend that openness to other ITU bodies that consider Internet-related public policy issues?

Such openness is in the interest of all, but it is important that the ITU coordinates its work with other relevant multistakeholder bodies tackling both technical (such as ICANN, the IETF and the RIRs) and non-technical issues (such as the Internet Governance Forum), taking advantage of those bodies’ expertise and not attempting to duplicate their functions. The full civil society proposal to the ITU Council is available here. We’ll keep you abreast of the latest developments coming out of Geneva.