The World Telecommunication Policy Forum: issues to watch

The next chapter in the struggle over global internet governance is just weeks away with the start of the World Telecommunication Policy Forum (WTPF) in Geneva, Switzerland. Though WTPF will not result in a binding international treaty like the controversial World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), its outcome documents–known as opinions–will help shape the direction of global internet governance in the coming years.

From May 14-16, the WTPF will bring together representatives from government, industry, and the global regulatory community to exchange views on key policy issues related to the internet. The meeting is hosted by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the same UN agency that hosted the WCIT last December in Dubai.

Below, we break down the key issues to watch, as identified by Access together with the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT). See CDT’s “World Telecommunication/ICT Policy Forum (WTPF) Issues to Watch” for more.

Who governs the internet

While there is no threat of the ‘UN taking over the internet,’ the current model of internet governance that divides responsibilities among governments, the private sector, civil society, and intergovernmental organizations–known as the multistakeholder model–is up for debate. The Secretary-General’s report, which was prepared over the last year and will serve as the basis for discussions at the WTPF, identifies broad themes for discussion, including the multistakeholder model of the governance of the internet and “increasing the role of ITU in Internet governance so as to ensure maximum benefits to the global community”. Together with negotiations over the draft opinions, the preparatory process revealed two worrying trends: a push for consolidated, top-down governance and a drive to expand the role of governments in internet governance.

Both governments and the ITU have a role to play in internet-related policy making–this was recognized in 2005 when the world’s governments endorsed the Tunis Agenda, the outcome of the UN’s World Summit on Information Society (WSIS). But the report from the Secretary-General, and debates in the Informal Experts Group (a diverse working group on the Secretary General’s report) indicate that more authority for governments and the ITU could be harmful to the internet and the rights of users.

Much of the language in the Secretary-General’s report includes descriptions of the dangers of the internet, rooted in online content and the alleged shortcomings of existing governance institutions, and invites the ITU to play a larger role in this respect. The inclusion of this language may lead to further calls for a consolidated top-down governance model, and yet content regulation is wholly outside the scope of the ITU’s traditional domain. Should views like these be incorporated into the WTPF outcome documents, they could justify greater governmental control over online content.

Likewise, the Secretary-General’s report presents a view held by some governments (Algeria, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan in particular) that “with regards to international Internet-related public policy, the role of one stakeholder – Governments – has not been allowed to evolve.” The report goes on to explain that the lack of government involvement is “one reason for ongoing challenges in dealing with various issues (e.g., exploitation of children, security, cyber-crime and spam, etc).” Linking the need for more government involvement in internet policy with online criminal behavior may indicate that governments see their role as controlling online behavior rather than facilitating it.

Establishing a tiered internet

The Secretary-General’s report also calls into question the fundamental operating principle of the “best effort” network we know as the internet–meaning that content and services are provided without discriminating traffic that would ensure a “quality of service” for certain privileged users or services. The report notes that because of the dramatic increase in mobile communication that it may become increasingly difficult for network operators to establish, implement, or maintain quality of service standards and presents one view that “it is in the public interest that IP-based networks and other telecommunication networks be both interoperable and provide, at a minimum, the level of QoS provided by traditional networks.”

“Quality of Service” was a deeply contentious issue at the WCIT, and although such regulations were ultimately rejected in Dubai, they equally cause concern in the context of the WTPF. Giving credence to the QoS argument could pose threats to national network neutrality regulations and legitimize efforts to establish a tiered internet with more expensive or reduced access to the full range of information or services online for businesses and users, particularly in developing countries.

Human Rights

Discussions at the WTPF will also likely touch on the issue of human rights on the internet, such as freedom of expression and association, and privacy rights. The way in which human rights are treated in the Secretary-General’s report are disappointing, failing to mention the growing body of norms informing human rights in the online environment, such as the UN Human Rights Council resolution on “the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet” and UN Human Rights Committee General Comment 34, both of which are strong affirmations of the application of human rights–in particular freedom of expression–online.

Affordable Access

The WTPF also an opportunity to encourage important positive steps towards bridging the digital divide. Draft opinions on promoting Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) and fostering an enabling environment for broadband connectivity, call attention to the critical issues of advancing affordable Internet access and promoting effective competition to reduce barriers for users around the world.

Participating at the WTPF

Given the range of issues at stake here, individuals and organizations with an interest in digital rights, internet governance, and access to information may want to get involved. While preparations for WTPF have been more transparent than those for the WCIT, there are still significant barriers to participation. Individuals wishing to attend the WTPF may apply for accreditation as “public attendants” up until April 12, 2013. Public attendants should get access to most, if not all aspects of the WTPF, but as observers, they will not have the ability to make oral or written contributions.

Members of the Informal Experts Group will however be able to contribute to the WTPF as guests of the Secretary General. Access, for example, participated in the IEG and welcomes comments and discussion so that we able to amplify the views of broader civil society.

Looking forward

While non-binding, the outcomes of the WTPF will set in motion future discussions in major international policy-making venues. This includes the ITU’s 2014 Plenipotentiary meeting, at which a vote will be taken on whether and how to revise the ITU’s constitution, potentially bringing internet governance under the UN agency’s mandate. WTPF outcomes could also influence the review of WSIS, which in 2015 will present the opportunity to reaffirm support for and to improve the multistakeholder model of internet governance, or to renegotiate it along the lines being discussed at WPTF. Collectively and incrementally, these norm building measures could change the internet as we know it.

To learn more about opportunities for getting involved, see our factsheet: How civil society can participate in the World Telecommunication Policy Forum.

For background information on the WTPF see Access’ WTPF primer and round up of the final meeting of the WTPF Informal Experts Group.