Spotlight on Internet Governance: Part Three International Telecommunication Union

In many ways the disclosures on mass government surveillance made Edward Snowden defined the global debate on internet governance in 2013. Looking ahead in 2014, Snowden’s revelations continue to shape the internet governance landscape, adding significance to already planned events and creating new ones.

2014 was already set to be a critical year, with some key meetings planned having the potential to push the needle on much needed reform of global internet governance. But in the aftermath of Snowden’s revelations, it looks like 2014 could be the year for change. The rising political pressure, heightened public awareness and activism, and a new global meeting on the future of internet governance, could inject urgency to resolving some of the power disparities and policy gaps that have plagued the global internet framework for years.

Specifically, we are looking at 2014 as an opportunity to advance a positive reform agenda that: preserves the interoperable/global nature of the internet; is secure and facilitates the exercise of human rights, for all users without discrimination or regard for where they happen to connect; is inclusive in decision-making so that policies reflect the public interest.

This is the third in a series of blog posts in which we will break down the major international internet governance moments on our radar for 2014.

International Telecommunication Union (ITU)

Background: The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is a specialized agency of the U.N. that focuses on information and communication technologies – ICTs. It allocates global radio spectrum and satellite orbits, develops the telecommunications standards, and strives to improve access to ICTs to underserved communities worldwide. The ITU is playing an increasingly larger role in broader internet governance debates, as a facilitator of some WSIS Action Lines and bodies like the ITU Council, Council Working Groups, various study groups, and global meetings organized by the ITU. As an intergovernmental organization, decision-making at the ITU is made by governmentsWhile there are opportunities for paid “sector” or “associate” memberships for non-governmental entities, facilitating some degree of participation including access to relevant documents, only the 193 Member States have the right to vote in all matters at the ITU.

General information: Because much of the ITU’s documentation is not public, it is difficult to have a full picture of where on the ITU’s agenda internet policy issues will surface, but we outline below the ITU meetings in 2014 we anticipate being most relevant to internet governance.


The ITU’s Council Working Group on International Internet-related Public Policy Issues (CWG-Internet) has the mandate to identify, study, and develop matters related to specific international Internet-related public policy issues [1]. An ongoing issue CWG-Internet has sought to address is the question of the role of governments in internet governance. This was the main issue left unresolved at last year’s ITU-hosted World Telecommunication Policy Forum (WTPF), and arguably the issue at the forefront of international internet governance debates since before the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS).

At its last meeting in November, CWG-Internet decided to launch a consultation among governments on their role in the internet-related public policy issues covered in Resolution 1305, the results of which were to be discussed at its March session. While the consultation was rather straightforward in asking what the role of governments is in these public policy areas, the responses from various governments signaled their position on evolving the international institutional framework. Nearly 40 governments responded to the consultation and their responses reflected a true range in view point. For example the joint response from Bahrain and Saudi Arabia recommended that governments “Name or create an entity within the UN system to enable governments, on an equal footing, to carry out their roles and responsibilities in international public policy issues pertaining to the Internet, but not in the day-to-day technical and operational matters that do not impact on international public policy issues” and did not mention other stakeholders even once.

Sweden on the other hand noted that “increased government influence at the expense of the influence of other stakeholders would be a disincentive for the innovation and entrepreneurship that is the driving force for development of the Internet […and] would lead to increased politicization of technical decisions and bureaucratising established decision-making.”

The submission from India took a middle ground approach and is worth quoting at length:

“The different roles of the Indian government are to empower Internet users, ensure a fair and consistent domestic legal framework, and foster a robust global Internet infrastructure. Governments need to be active players in the Internet governance process with other stakeholders and build partnerships in order to achieve public policy goals and to secure the economic and social benefits of its citizens through the Internet as envisaged in Para 29,35, 61,68 and 69 of the Tunis Agenda. Government should be represented in decision-making forums but they would undertake consultations at their respective national levels with all stakeholders including private industry, civil society, academia and the technical community while formulating their positions.”

The Indian position does not call for a new U.N. body for internet policy, as it once did, and recognizes the importance of other stakeholders. But it still relegates other stakeholders to a consultative position at the national level, rather than having a role in their own right at the international level.

The question of whether or not to open up the consultation beyond governments, to other stakeholders was revisited at the March meeting and governments agreed to conduct an open consultation. This was previously discussed at the November meeting, but the decision at the time was to hold the government consultation first, with governments encouraged to consult other stakeholders in their national submissions, and then to revisit the idea of an open consultation at the following meeting.

The initial closed consultation is illustrative of why Access views increasing the ITU’s involvement in internet governance policy making as highly problematic. First, the idea of asking one stakeholder group to evaluate its own role is incredibly short-sighted. It should not come as a surprise that the responses from governments that consulted other stakeholders reflected a different understanding of their role with respect to other stakeholders than those who did not.

Second, the public would not know that this consultation took place if not for the document leaking site WCITLeaks and the governments that conducted open consultations. Members of civil society have repeatedly requested access to the ITU’s working documents and participation in its deliberations on internet issues, and its requests have repeatedly been denied. While Access would support a decision to open up this consultation beyond governments at this upcoming session, we consider the manner in which civil society has been engaged to date at the ITU and the lack of avenues for impacting policy to be inconsistent with the principles of inclusiveness and transparency that internet policy making should meet.

World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC)

The World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC) is a global meeting that the ITU organizes every four years to develop a strategic vision for its development sector (ITU-D). Taking place in Dubai from 30 March through 10 April, the WTDC will develop non-binding resolutions and agreements that will feed into the ITU Plenipotentiary meeting (see below). The meeting’s final report will define what ITU-D will try to achieve before the next WTDC in 2018.

Some draw a link between the WTDC and the larger internet governance debates because they view it as an opportunity for governments to develop and advance positions and alliances around the role of the ITU in international internet related public policy issues. For example, at the last WTDC in 2010, governments revised the questions addressed by two study groups to address cybersecurity and ICT applications and Internet-related issues.Resolution on these same issues will be reviewed at this year’s WTDC.

Much like other ITU-hosted meetings at this level, one must be a member state, sector member, or part of a national delegation in order to participate in the WTDC. There does not appear to be any opportunities for civil society to participate independently, as a member of the public for example, however selected sessions of WTDC may be webcast. Just seven months ahead of the Plenipotentiary meeting, the WTDC is a meeting to watch both for its impact on the direction of the ITU’s development work and for those who are concerned with the direction of the ITU in the broader internet governance debate.

ITU Plenipotentiary Conference

The most significant ITU meeting of 2014 will be the Plenipotentiary Conference (Plenipot), which will take place in late October in Busan, South Korea. Plenipot is the ITU’s highest policy-making event, during which member states take a number of actions, including updating the ITU Constitution and Convention, adopting resolutions on policy, electing ITU senior leadership, and setting out the strategic plan of the ITU. As a treaty conference, contribution to Plenipot is limited to member states, and participation from non-governmental actors can only be accommodated through national delegations.

We consider Plenipot to a be an important internet governance meeting in 2014 because in recent years a number governments that would like to see governments play a larger role in international policy-making on internet issues look to the ITU to pursue this agenda. There are numerous examples to support this. For example, at the controversial World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) held in 2012, a number of governments pushed to have the ITU coordinate aspects of internet policy-making. Ultimately the word internet did not even appear in the treaty produced at WCIT, but in a non-binding resolution appended to the treaty entitled “To foster an enabling environment for the greater growth of the Internet”.

This debate reemerged the following year at the non-binding WTPF, during which a number of governments’ contributions asserted the perspective that the ITU is uniquely qualified to lead internet-related public policy making at the international level The outcome documents of WTPF reflects these contributions. And most recently, the positions of Iran and Saudi Arabia, for example at the recent U.N. Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation meeting in February reflected a desire to create a new body to coordinate internet-related public policy at the global level under the auspices of the ITU.

These examples are all non-binding processes, but the outcome of Plenipot is binding and will set out the course of the ITU’s work over the next four years. Internet issues on our radar at Plenipot include:

Plenipot also offers the opportunity to reform the ITU’s working methods, which currently present significant barriers to participation and public scrutiny. For example, in revising the ITU’s Constitution and Convention, Member States could opt to make all of the ITU’s documentation available without paywall protection, which would enable more informed public debate about the ITU’s activities. Additionally, Member States could decide to grant non-governmental actors more scope to influence ITU activity, by opening bodies like CWG-Internet beyond governments. Perhaps most radically, the ITU could opt to abolish its “pay to play” system of membership that allows certain entities to have different degrees of access and influence depending on how much money they are willing to pay in membership dues. As an international agency dedicated to connecting the world, the ITU should not put a price tag on access to deliberations.

What’s at stake

There has been considerable contention in recent years over the scope of the ITU’s role and activities with regards to internet-related public policy. As the intergovernmental organization with the most relevant mandate to the internet, some actors view the ITU as the most logical place for internet public policy making relating to the internet to take place. Others, however take the view that the internet is not an fixed issue but an evolving space. Therefore it is a mistake to think that one body, and one set of experts, could possibly be responsible for effective policy making on all Internet-related matters. Rather, a distributed system better enables issue-based expertise, including from civil society from around the world, to engage on specific issues with the Internet Governance Forum (IGF)playing a valuable role in enriching understanding of internet public policy issues, actors, spaces and challenges, and addressing them in a non-binding in nature.

For the latter group, with which we associate ourselves, this push for an increased role of the ITU is cause for concern for a number of reasons. First, the ITU does not meet basic standards of inclusiveness, transparency, and expertise that should be expected of any public policy making body on internet issues. Second, a number of governments at the forefront of pushing for a larger role for the ITU promote policies at the national and international level that are inconsistent with international human rights norms and the interoperable nature of the global internet. Finally, we fundamentally disagree that the notion that centralizing international policy making on internet issues in any singular body will produce better policy.

But what makes the ITU an appealing space to some governments is exactly what makes it an unappealing forum for some other stakeholders, like parts of civil society: it is by definition an intergovernmental organization, which has clear rules for engagement and puts all governments on equal footing. Initiatives like the Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance (NetMundial) to be held in Sao Paulo in April 2014, the Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation (WGEC), and to a certain degree the review of the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS+10) are seeking to find an approach to evolve the current internet governance ecosystem so that imbalances of power are mitigated and more diverse and marginalized voices are brought into internet governance policy spaces. Should those efforts not yield consensus on a way forward within the current framework, efforts to enlarge the ITU’s role in internet policy making will likely play out at the ITU Plenipot Conference later this year.

Key dates:

  • 3-4 March: Council Working Group-Internet (Geneva)
  • 30 March- 10 April: World Telecommunication Development Conference (Dubai)
  • 6-15 May: ITU Council meeting (Geneva)
  • 20 October- 7 November: ITU Plenipotentiary Conference (Busan, South Korea)

[1] Multilingualization of the Internet Including Internationalized (multilingual); Domain Names; International Internet Connectivity; International public policy issues pertaining to the Internet and the management of Internet resources, including domain names and addresses; The security, safety, continuity, sustainability, and robustness of the Internet; Combating Cybercrime; Dealing effectively with spam; Issues pertaining to the use and misuse of the Internet; Availability, affordability, reliability, and quality of service, especially in the developing world; Contributing to capacity building for Internet governance in developing countries; Developmental aspects of the Internet; Respect for privacy and the protection of personal information and data; Protecting children and young people from abuse and exploitation (Source: ITU Council resolution 1305)

Parts one and two of this series on the World Summit on Information Society Review (WSIS+10) and the Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation (WGEC) are availabe here and available here and here.

Multilingualization of the Internet Including Internationalized (multilingual); Domain Names
International; Internet Connectivity; International public policy issues pertaining to the Internet and the management of Internet resources, including domain names and addresses; The security, safety, continuity, sustainability, and robustness of the Internet; Combating Cybercrime; Dealing effectively with spam; Issues pertaining to the use and misuse of the Internet; Availability, affordability, reliability, and quality of service, especially in the developing world; Contributing to capacity building for Internet governance in developing countries; Developmental aspects of the Internet; Respect for privacy and the protection of personal information and data; Protecting children and young people from abuse and exploitation (Source: ITU Council resolution 1305)