Today in Geneva the the Informal Experts Group (IEG) for the World Telecommunications Policy Forum (WTPF) finished its work. 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. And the purpose of this week’s meeting was to provide final comments on the ITU Secretary-General’s draft report and draft opinions, which will shape the discussions at the WTPF.
Main issues discussed
The bulk of the two and a half day meeting was spent on draft opinions submitted by a number of IEG members, which includes representatives from governments, the private sector, civil society, and independent experts. There were up to four draft opinions on each of the following nine topics: Promoting Internet Exchange Points (IXPs), Capacity building for the deployment of IPv6, IPv6 Adoption/deployment; transition from IPv4, Inclusivity of communications for all, Enabling environment for Broadband and development, Internet Governance- Role of Governments in the multistakeholder framework; Internet Governance- Multi-stakeholder involvement; Enhanced Cooperation; Trust Frameworks and X.509 Certificates.
The draft opinions ranged from being complementary to being at complete odds with one another. In some cases, a common goal and constructive engagement produced relatively painless consensus; in others, tedious debates over technical issues ultimately led to a common position; and on others yet, the time was insufficient to deal with what appear to be fundamental disagreements the function and future of the internet.
Below we provide a brief breakdown of key issues related to access, internet governance, and the exercise of human rights online. The approved versions of the draft opinions referenced below should be posted on the ITU’s website on Monday, 11 February.
Promoting IXPs and enabling broadband development
Tackling the very real problem that affordable and reliable internet connectivity is simply not available for two-thirds of the world’s population, the IEG approved two draft resolutions that could accelerate the expansion of access globally.
The draft opinion on promoting Internet Exchange Points calls on governments to promote the further development and expansion of IXPs, which could dramatically reduce interconnection costs and broaden network access. The draft opinion on fostering an enabling environment for broadband development invites a range of stakeholders, including first and foremost governments, to create and promote widespread affordable access to telecommunication infrastructure, and gives specific guidance in this regard.
Multi-stakeholder internet governance
There were a total of three different sub-topics covered under the umbrella of multistakeholder internet governance with thirteen draft opinions in total. This was one of the most controversial topics of the meeting.
The first discussed was “supporting multistakeholderism in internet governance.” While there was a lively debate about the role of each stakeholder, the final text calls for greater collaboration between stakeholders in multistakeholder processes, with an emphasis on improving the participation of developing country stakeholders in various aspects of internet governance. Unfortunately, a paragraph that would have invited the ITU to improve its multistakeholder engagement and “in particular to look at how to work with all stakeholders more effectively to inform the decision-making processes,” which is something that civil society has repeatedly called for, was deleted.
A second draft opinion on multistakeholderism, specifically the “role of government in the multistakeholder framework for internet governance” was effectively withdrawn because of insufficient time and because views on this opinion were incredibly polarized. Access viewed some of the language in this draft opinion as extremely problematic, for example, references to a “national internet segment.” We welcome the Chair’s decision to not advance this opinion to the WTPF.
A third draft opinion on “operationalizing the enhanced cooperation process” was agreed upon after much deliberation and ultimately draws from existing language from UN General Assembly resolutions and the Tunis Agenda.
Inclusivity of communications for all
Perhaps the most divisive issue at the IEG meeting was the draft opinion on supporting the inclusivity of communications for all, for which both Iran and the UK had made submissions. The topic was so divisive that attempts to compile a combination draft text were abandoned and the opinion was withdrawn. This represents both a missed opportunity (the UK draft contained strong human rights language) and a win (since the Iranian language could have developed weak norms for digital rights).
The IEG meeting also clarified a few points on process. First, it was announced that all relevant stakeholders who were members of the IEG would be able to participate in deliberations at the WTPF May meeting, even if they are not members of the ITU. This group of individuals, which includes members of civil society, will be invited as special guests of the ITU Secretary-General. Other interested individuals can apply to observe as members of the public.
On the one hand, it is welcome news that civil society members of the IEG will be able to participate fully in the WTPF; on the other hand, it is regrettable that there is no process for non-IEG members of civil society to participate fully at the WTPF at this point, especially considering there are only a handful of civil society members of the IEG.
The U.S., supported by Portugal and PayPal, made a case for the fullest, broadest participation at WTPF and requested that the ITU Secretariat look into this matter. Additionally, our friends at the Center for Democracy and Technology who are also part of the IEG and participated in the Geneva meeting in person made an effective statement on the importance of civil society being able to contribute as an independent voice in these and other deliberations. “Civil society brings incredibly valuable technical, human rights, and policy insights and expertise to deliberations such as these. CDT believes that civil society should be able to bring this expertise to the WTPF in May and make its views heard and included in a meaningful way.”
It should be further noted that while civil society’s participation at the IEG has been limited, only participating in the IEG’s final meeting, and is ambiguous at the WTPF, the remote participation that was facilitated by the ITU was effective and accommodating.
The work of the IEG is now officially complete and the outcome of this week’s meeting will be captured in the upcoming report of the Secretary-General, which is due on March 1. The opinions are not considered final until they are adopted by the plenary at the WTPF itself. As noted above, all draft opinions that were approved at this week’s meeting should be posted on the ITU’s website on Monday, 11 February. It is entirely possible that issues that were effectively dropped from the IEG’s discussions at this meeting could reappear at the May meeting of the WTPF.
Note: Access participated remotely in this meeting as a member of the IEG. We’ll have further analysis of the IEG opinions once they’re published, which is expected to happen on Monday. For background information on the WTPF see Access’s WTPF primer.