WTPF: it all comes back around

Tomorrow the World Telecommunication Policy Forum (WTPF), a meeting hosted by the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU), will kick off in Geneva. The meeting, meant to provide a venue for governments and industry to discuss key policy issues in today’s telecommunications and information and communication technology (ICT) environment, has declared its theme for 2013 to be internet-related public policy.

Preparations for the WTPF began almost a year ago, through a body known as the Informal Experts Group (IEG), which is comprised of governments, the private sector and civil society. The IEG provided feedback on the ITU Secretary-General’s report that will serve as the basis for WTPF discussions and produced six draft “opinions”, which identify issues for further consideration and action by Member States, Sector Members and other ITU meetings.

The draft opinions address three broad issues: expanding affordable internet access, through broadband and internet exchange points (IXPs); IPv6 adoption and deployment; and internet governance. Access submitted a joint contribution to the IEG, expressing our views on the Secretary-General’s report and draft opinions.

Beginning tomorrow and for the next three days, the Member States of the ITU, i.e. governments, are expected to discuss and adopt the above mentioned opinions, which in turn will guide international internet policy making in those areas in the coming years. But if recent history is a guide, chances are it won’t be so simple.

Echoes of Dubai

WPTF is the first major ITU meeting dealing the internet since the controversial World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), held last December in Dubai. At WCIT governments sparred over to what degree–if at all–an international telecommunications treaty should deal with the internet. Some governments–such as China, Russia, and certain Arab Gulf states–sought far-reaching provisions for internet regulations, many of which evoked significant human rights concerns. At the other extreme, some governments–in particular the United States and members of the European Union–opposed any mention of the internet in the treaty. And yet many other countries fell in between these two extremes, seeking limited international regulation.

Ultimately, neither side could claim a victory. The final language of the new treaty does not include any mention of the internet, but an appended non-binding resolution (known as the “internet resolution”) invites the ITU to play an increased role in internet governance. Of the participating ITU members, 89 governments signed the treaty, while 56 did not; this led some observers to pronounce a dawn of a digital cold war between freedom and regulation, a paradigm that Access rejects. Nonetheless, the polarized environment post-WCIT, combined with the controversial resolution, means that the stakes are high at WTPF.

Some governments are looking to the WTPF as an opportunity to repair relationships that were strained as a result of WCIT. The U.S. may be a prime example of this. Lawrence Strickling, Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information at the U.S. Department of Commerce, and Danny Sepulveda, Deputy Assistant Secretary and U.S. Coordinator, Communications and Information Policy,  recently put out a blog post saying “The WTPF is an opportunity for us to come together in the spirit of cooperation, healthy exchange, and shared interests for the good of the global Internet and the potential it has to further innovation, entrepreneurship, development, and public discourse.”

The U.S. has also pledged to endorse the six draft opinions in the interest of maintaining consensus, even though some of its language was not included. Despite this gesture on the part of the U.S., it’s not clear whether other participating governments will adopt a similar posture, or whether such an approach will hold. Depending on the way things come together, the WPTF could either present a replay of WCIT, or mark a genuine attempt to come together in dialogue and discuss real issues.

New Contributions

A new round of proposals pertaining to the opinions for discussion were submitted to the ITU on 29 April, after the IEG had agreed on the draft opinions, suggests that the fragile consensus may be whittled away.

For example, a contribution from Brazil, titled “On the role of government in the multistakeholder framework for internet governance,” presents cause for concern in its characterization of the ITU as a multistakeholder institution.  Although ITU is an actor in the multistakeholder model, it is not a functionally multistakeholder body itself: by its charter, it is an intergovernmental body in which decision making power lies with its Member States. With only one stakeholder group holding full rights of participation, its incorrect to characterize that body as multistakeholder.

Furthermore, the Brazilian proposal uses language to suggest that the ITU’s role in internet governance “must” continue, regardless of need or expertise. A similar proposal discussed at the IEG did not achieve consensus, but at WTPF, where representation will be skewed in favor of governments, such a proposal may find support.

Russia has also put forward a contribution suggesting problematic amendments to draft opinion 5, “On supporting multistakeholderism in Internet governance.” The Russian contribution articulates a host of responsibilities for governments at the expense of other stakeholders, such as calling on governments to make international Internet policy and regulate national networks, activities traditionally conducted in transparent cooperation with stakeholders including the private sector, academia, and civil society.

Access joins more than 30 other members of Best Bits, a civil society network, in stating that human rights must be at the forefront of internet governance and ITU convenings encouraging that the debate at the WTPF not be reopened on the already agreed-upon opinions, or on the drafts that could not achieve consensus in the IEG. The agenda at the WTPF is already full and discussions of these amendments would significantly weaken and damage the outcome of the Forum.

Stuck on multistakeholderism

If discussions at the IEG are any indication of the direction of the WTPF, discussions will likely focus considerably on the definition, practice, and implementation of multistakeholderism. This is disappointing. The fact that some governments are still debating the meaning of the word, and trying to define roles for types of stakeholders, indicates that some parties still question the validity of the approach; in turn reinforcing the belief among some nations that multistakeholderism is some kind of ‘tool’ to preserve “Western” hegemony over the internet.

Furthermore, the ongoing discussion over multistakeholderism crowds out other valuable discussions that would otherwise receive attention at the WTPF. One issue that received less attention than it ought was a proposal by the United Kingdom that presented a strong affirmation of human rights online: a draft opinion entitled “Inclusivity of Communication for All.” The debate on multistakeholderism overshadowed this and other discussions, including issues prioritized by human rights groups, such as network neutrality and accessibility for persons with disabilities.

Barriers to participation

Transparency and inclusivity have proven to be a challenge so far in the WTPF process, but in different ways than at WCIT. At WTPF, documents are public, and some non-ITU members have been able to participate in the preparatory/IEG process (including Access), even if the process for joining the IEG was not transparent as it could have been. And unlike with the WCIT, there was no public comment period for the WTPF, which is something that civil society requested. Nonetheless some members of civil society should have speaking and document contribution rights, and others will attend as members of the public and as part of their national delegations. The WTPF should be live webcast in English and live captioned in the 6 official UN languages.