ITU Plenipotentiary: Halftime Updates

As Access explained in our introductory blog post here, the International Telecommunication Union Plenipotentiary conference is held once every four years, and we expected this year’s conference in Busan, Korea to be full of controversy. The Conference is now about halfway over and our expectations came true. Here’s a quick halftime report on the major happenings and topics of conversation.


The first week of Plenipot primarily occupied by elections to select the new leadership of the ITU. The results were unsurprising, especially for top positions such as the Secretary General and Director of the Radiocommunication Bureau, because each candidate ran unopposed. For certain positions such as Deputy Secretary-General, several rounds of voting were needed to achieve the required majority as the result of complex voting blocks. (See more on the elections here.)

We hope that the new leadership of the ITU, which will start its term in 2015, led by the new Secretary-General Houlin Zhao of China, will bring about transparency and openness reform on ITU procedures, carrying on the work of his predecessor Touré. One of the first steps could be Houlin Zhao’s active participation in meetings with civil society that are scheduled for the few remaining days of the conference.


Best Bits submitted a civil society letter in early October that pushed for further transparency and inclusiveness in ITU processes during and beyond the Plenipotentiary, some favorable developments took place. ITU has provided space for civil society groups to declare their positions and provide input under the Public Views section of its official website. Proposals submitted by member states have also been opened to the public. In addition, the ITU Secretariat held a meeting with members from civil society who are on-site in Busan, and more meetings will follow. However, the temporary working documents that are necessary to meaningfully follow the debates are unfortunately still closed to public access, and are only viewable through WCITLEAKS.org. In addition, it is hard to talk about an independent, powerful civil society because they traveled in affiliation with national delegations. Unfortunately, genuine representation of civil society interests can only be achieved via direct, independent participation, which is still not possible due to the ITU’s structure.


The nearly 2,000 delegates at the conference could work on various committees, as decided by the Plenary session:

  • Committee 1 (Steering)
  • Committee 2 (Credentials)
  • Committee 3 (Budget Control)
  • Committee 4 (Editorial)
  • Committee 5 (Policy and Legal)
  • Committee 6 (Administration and Management)
  • Working Group of the Plenary (WGPL), whose work has been subdivided into several Ad Hoc Groups (AHGs) (See here for a work schema of all AHGs.)

For digital rights and internet issues, Committee 5, Commitee 6, and the WGPL discussed various proposals. The meetings of these committees are webcasted live and also archived here. As internet issues are often controversial, various other ad hoc committees were put into place, however their meetings are – at least for now – not webcast.  

One of the important issues regarding this Plenipotentiary was the possibility of revising the ITU Constitution to expand its mandate. So far, there have not been any concrete attempts to do so, and we expect no changes. This is good news because we were fearful of an increase in the ITU’s mandate over internet-related issues. It should be possible to achieve concrete reform that promotes transparency, openness, and multistakeholder participation without revising the Constitution.


The proposed amendments to Resolution 101 (Internet Protocol-based networks) and Resolution 133 (Role of administrations of Member States in the management of internationalized (multilingual) domain names) led to significant debate and controversy, demonstrating that proposal review is a long and slow process. It was hard to tell what emerge in the final documents as most of the proposals made by various blocks of states were constantly modified by the others. The final text submitted to the plenary proved to be less controversial than expected. The debates surrounding these amendments were important because they discussed opening the Council Working Group on internet related public policy issues to public consultations and comments by non-governmental actors–a real possibility if Resolution 102 passes without further amendments. However, the actual meetings of the Council Working Group are likely to be remained closed to civil society.

In the ad hoc group on Internet related resolutions, the Russian delegation attempted to have ITU define the principles of the Internet but received pushback from other delegates, which acknowledged that the ITU, as an intergovernmental organization which represents the interests of states, was inappropriate for these discussions. The NETmundial forum was lauded by many delegations as a great forum for ensuring that fundamental human rights principles are protected online, and for producing concrete outcomes and principles. As seen in recent years, NETmundial discussions have also been taking place at the Internet Governance Forum, where the voices of diverse communities can be heard. These comments were not welcomed by the delegations from Russia or Saudi Arabia, which objected to the proposed text of the internet related resolution.


Another important issue being discussed in Committee 5 relates to counterfeit devices, such as mobile phones. There have been proposals to Resolution 177 on interoperability as well as a new resolution on counterfeit devices. One proposal suggested the creation of a central, “single register of ICT product codes,” which we consider problematic and could be harmful to connectivity and innovation, and in turn negatively impact the ITU’s primary goal of bridging the digital divide. Fortunately, these problematic proposals were removed from the final text sent to Committee 5 to be discussed in the coming week. Another welcome development was included reference to the importance of “maintaining user connectivity.”


Cybersecurity once again became an issue subject to conflicting geopolitical interests. Cybersecurity was primarily debated during Resolution 174, which addressed “ITU’s role with regard to international public policy issues relating to the risk of illicit use of information and telecommunication technologies.” Various controversial proposals on Resolution 174 were offered and rejected, such as the implementation of a global charter related to ICT security, proposed by Arab States. The changes advocated by Brazil involving a human rights-based approach to cybersecurity also faced opposition. In the end, the final text submitted by the Working Group of the Plenary to the Editorial Committee reaffirmed Resolution 68/167 of the United Nations General Assembly on the right to privacy in the digital age. The text specifically referenced other stakeholders as necessary actors in the global effort to address and prevent the illicit use of ICTs. The proposals also limited the Secretary General of the ITU’s involvement to be constrained by his mandate.

Another group of member states is currently working on Resolution 130, to strengthen “the role of ITU in building confidence and security in the use ICTs.” Several proposals were made on this resolution, but the status quo remained and no major changes occurred in the final text.

Furthermore, India, where around one billion people are expected to come online in the upcoming years, presented the resolution “ITU’s role in realizing Secure Information Society”  (98/1), and included various new roles for the ITU and the ITU Secretariat based on principles of state sovereignty. This proposal caused discord in Busan, and also online as various organizations have published conflicting opinions in against, or in support of, the resolution. India’s position is striking, since actions by the world’s largest democracy are very important for the future of internet governance.


After an ad hoc meeting on a new resolution proposed by South Korea entitled “Facilitating Internet of Things (IoT) to prepare for a Globally Connected World,” the final text was sent to the Plenary for approval. The request for a specific study on spectrum allocations was dropped, but a continued focus on the issue was approved. Going forward, the ITU will encourage continued development and work on IoT and will assist member states with capacity building and best practices.  Finally, the resolution encourages all stakeholders to participate actively in the work of the ITU and other standards development organizations on IoT. It should be noted that IoT is important to Dr. Chaesub Lee, the Director-elect of the Telecommunication Standardization Bureau, who has also served as chair of the ITU-T Study Group 13, a group which focused on Next Generation Network such as IoT and Cloud Computing. It is clear that the ITU is committed to working on IoT and will continue to do so.


The Plenipotentiary was not just filled with controversy. The conference also gave rise to various positive developments and victories.


Organizations and projects were awarded GEM-TECH Awards that were co-sponsored by the ITU and UN Women. In seven categories, organizations were recognized for projects that promote gender equality and ICT mainstreaming. We applaud the efforts by the ITU to promote women’s empowerment through the use of ICTs. See the full list of winners here.


On child protection, various proposals were introduced to amend Resolution 179 “ITU’s role in child online protection.” We welcome the new proposals that promote youth input and multistakeholder participation.


One fascinating new development was spurned by the tragedy of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370. Committee 5’s Ad Hoc Group on Global Flight Tracking unanimously agreed on a new resolution, to consider “that the loss of Flight MH370 spurred worldwide discussions on global flight tracking and the need for coordinated action by ITU and other relevant organization(s), within the scope of their respective mandates.”

CONNECT 2020: New set of global ICT targets

ITU members are on the verge of setting targets for 2020 for the ICT sector that closely map to the goals elaborated in the 2016-2019 ITU strategic plan. The proposed vision includes, “an information society, empowered by the interconnected world, where telecommunication/ICTs enable and accelerate social, economic and environmentally sustainable growth and development for everyone.”  Officially branded “Connect 2020,” the framework is based around the following four complementary goals and related targets:

  • Growth – enable and foster access to and increased use of telecommunications/ICTs
  • Inclusiveness – bridge the digital divide and provide broadband for all
  • Sustainability – manage challenges resulting from telecommunication/ICT development
  • Innovation and partnership – lead, improve and adapt to the changing telecommunication/ICT environment.

Roundtables related to these four goals will take place in the upcoming days of the conference and will be webcasted here.

You can follow the conference with the following links:

Agenda for the Conference


Live Webcast of Meetings


Access’ Briefing Note


Civil Society Statements on the Plenipotentiary Meeting


ISOC’s List of Important Resolutions and Issues


Internet Governance blog by Samantha Dickinson (With regular updates on the Plenipot)


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