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ITU Council edges slowly, painfully toward the Internet [full article]
by Kieren McCarthy | 18 Oct 2011 |
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is continuing its difficult journey toward the 21st century in Geneva this week.
Picking up where the organization’s Plenipotentiary in Guadalajara a year ago left off, the ITU Council has been considering a number of proposals concerning the Internet and, not for the time, has hit the Internet’s culture of openness head on.
Following literally days of discussions spent trying to bridge the gap between a closed inter-governmental culture and the Internet’s open approach to policy, a series of odd compromises has been struck.
Key among them is future discussions of the “Dedicated Group on international Internet-related public policy issues”. The DGIRPPI (the worst acronym we’ve seen for a while) is transitioning to a more formal Working Group designation and is the hub of most of the work that emerges with respect to the Internet.
The ITU however finds itself stuck between two competing models and facing contradictory language over how to make that transition.
Photo: Veni Markovski
The process that created the Dedicated Group (WSIS) was, initially at least, an inter-governmental approach. That changed over time, and the final document (the Tunis Agenda) was liberally scattered with references to the term ‘multi-stakeholder’ – taken to mean including not just governments but also business, technical community, civil society and so on.
On top of that, one of the biggest outcomes of the four-week Plenipotentiary in October 2010 was the inclusion, albeit as a footnote, of various Internet organizations, including ICANN, the RIRs, IETF, ISOC and W3C.
So the question facing the ITU Council and the DGIRPPI therefore was: are non-governments allowed into the Working Group?
Same fight, same wording
The discussion broke down familiar lines with mostly Western governments, notably the United States, asking for the Working Group to be opened up to others, particularly sector members.
On the other side were, broadly, Middle Eastern governments insisting that the Dedicated Group was specifically set up with member state-only membership. China and Russia are known to favor a government-only approach but only speak up if they fear the argument will not go their way.
Both sides were able to pull out approved ITU wording to make their case. The WSIS resolutions and Guadalajara resolutions were bandied about and the meaning and intent and so on and so forth of each discussed to the point of tedium.
Even without Syria’s one-man stalling machine Nabil Kisrawi (who died earlier this year), the fact that some countries – in particular Iran – were not willing to budge means that the status quo is retained and the group will be restricted to member states.
Which led to the second part of the conversation – the consultations used to inform the Working Group’s work. After more back-and-forth in which Sweden, Brazil, Switzerland, Poland, and even Mali interjected to say that it was important that the consultation process be open, it was agreed that the consultations will be open.
Of course, the outcome was already pre-decided since both issues had already been heavily discussed and explicitly stated a year earlier in the Guadalajara Resolution 140, in point six for the Council, which reads:
to modify Resolution 1282 adopted by the Council at its 2008 session to establish a working group of the Council for the Dedicated Group on international Internet-related public policy issues, open only to Member States with open consultation to all stakeholders
But, as some country representatives pointed out, having an open consultation but a closed Working Group was a bit of a contradiction. Bulgaria noted for example that if the actual decisions and discussions are closed, it may discourage non-governments from bothering to take part in the open consultations. That argument was not accepted, nor was the subsequent suggestion that the Working Group documents at least be made public.
Almost all ITU documents – including all the ones for this Council discussion, including the agenda – are behind password protection, something that is a constant and stark reminder of the organization’s closed nature.
And so the ITU has ended up with an odd hybrid system – an open consultation of all stakeholders followed by a closed deliberation process for governments only. Almost everyone recognizes that this is not a system that can hope to work for very long, particularly the ITU staff who will have to switch between two completely different methods of work depending on what stage a document is in.
The momentum is clearly toward a more open process but it may be some time before that becomes a reality.
It may also provide Internet organizations with a reason to not engage formally with the ITU i.e. become sector members. The ball was put in the Internet organizations’ court – particularly ICANN – when the ITU acknowledged them in the Guadalajara resolutions. But with the ITU Council giving little reason or advantage to becoming a sector member in this discussion over the DGIRPPI, it will be easier for Internet organizations to argue there is no point signing up.
The wording has not been finalized but we understand it is basically copied from the Dedicated Group Council resolution in 2009 (Resolution 1305) with the additional of an Annex and the phrase “open consultation to all stakeholders” included in point one of three:
Council Resolution 1305 reads:
- to provide the necessary support, within existing budgetary resources, to ensure that the Dedicated Group on international Internet-related public policy issues, as an integral part of WGWSIS, carries out successfully its work,
- to disseminate, as appropriate, the reports of the Dedicated Group on international Internet-related public policy issues to all relevant international organizations and stakeholders actively involved in such matters for their consideration in their policy making process,
- to report annually to the Council on activities undertaken on these subjects.
What that doesn’t explicitly note of course is that the Working Group deliberations will be closed to non-governments.
As for the Annex, which will contain the Working Group’s terms of reference – and so define what it will be allowed to do – it will again use the Resolution 1305 wording that says it will “identify, study and develop matters related to international Internet-related public policy issues” but include the phrase (also from 1305) “all relevant international organizations and stakeholders actively involved in such matters for their consideration in their policy making process” when it comes to sharing the end results.
There is a second inclusion of “open consultation to all stakeholders” as well as the compromise text that the Working Group will “consider the output” of those consultations.
Crucially, however, the actual topics covered by “matters related to international Internet-related public policy issues” will go unchallenged. There were originally put in an Annex to Council resolution 1305 back in 2009 and are extremely broad-ranging.
They include everything from “Multi-lingualization of the Internet including IDNs” to “International public policy issues pertaining to the Internet and the management of Internet resources, including domain names and addresses” to “Combating Cybercrime” to “International Internet Connectivity” and “The security, safety, continuity, sustainability, and robustness of the Internet”. (See the full list.)
The fact that everything is on the table for the Working Group will worry the Internet organizations who currently decide almost all the aspects in the list.
We need ICTs. But first we need to decide what they are
Photo: Veni Markovski
There was then a second main point of discussion at the ITU Council, at least when it comes to the Internet, and that was the definition of the term “ICT”.
Now, you may need to sit down for this next part but it is of crucial importance for the future of the Internet. The term ICT of course stands for “information and communication technologies”. It also pretty much defines the scope of the entire ITU - what it is mandated by governments to do and to make decisions about. The term appears no less than 102 times in the Tunis Agenda.
Well, it’s taken 15 years for anyone to notice, but no one actually got around the defining the term. From Resolution 140 again:
that there is currently no definition of the term "information and communication technologies (ICT)", which is widely used in documents of the United Nations, ITU and other organizations, including the WSIS outcomes
Of course the real issue here is the Internet.
When the ITU effectively passed on the construction of the global TCP/IP network that we now know of as the Internet back in the 1990s, in many respects it forfeited its right to decide how things evolved. It has been trying to regain that lost ground ever since.
The solution, ITU old hands decided back in 2006 at its Antalya Plenipotentiary, was simply to change the organization’s mandate to include all “ICTs”. It was passed onto the ITU Council for follow-up. Fast-forward four years, and the next Plenipotentiary in 2010 recognizes that it has no definition for “ICT” so even if it extended its mandate, others (the Internet-loving, multi-stakeholder troublemakers) would simple say that ICTs do not include the Internet.
It is a very long game of chess but the stakes are high: if governments agreed the ITU was in charge of Internet technologies, either directly or indirectly, it would only be a matter of time before the existing Internet organizations saw their processes and decisions usurped by the inter-governmental body.
And so in 2010 at Guadalajara, it was resolved that the Council would be asked:
to elaborate through the Sector study groups and submit a working definition of the term ‘ICT’ to the Council and working groups of the Council, for possible transmission to the next plenipotentiary conference
Note the introduction of the word “possible” in “possible transmission”. The world’s governments are in this one for the long-haul.
But in the meantime, it is the Russians who are leading the charge, if you can call it a charge. Russia wants to use its broader sway over the whole ITU to reach an agreed definition across all the different ITU sectors. Saudi Arabia agrees.
Needless to say others, again led by the United States, are opposed to that because they will have less influence on the end result. And so they propose discussing it in the development arm of the ITU – ITU-D – and then sharing it with other sectors.
At the same time, others have already started looking for the “creative ambiguity” that always tends to appear around difficult topics, with Canada suggesting any definition of ICT would have to “flexible” because it is used so widely and with so many different meanings.
This one will run and run.
Moving to the next battleground
With the various channels for those pushing for a strong inter-governmental role on the Internet being closed up (which, you could argue, is a clear sign that change, albeit glacial, is being effected), the only remaining solution is to find a whole new arena to have discussions.
And so it was with Saudi Arabia pushing for a 2013 meeting that would have as its focus “Internet governance”.
Having failed to push the inter-governmental agenda at the IGF, through the WSIS annual updates, and with the Working Group opening out to include input from non-governments, the creation of 2013 meeting was justified through a creative reading of Resolution 102 from Guadalajara.
There is clearly some plan afoot from the Middle Eastern contingent which quickly insisted that the meeting would be a “forum” rather than a “workshop” and that it be aligned with the World Telecommunication Policy Forum. The aim in both cases is to create some kind of binding outcome in an arena where the odds are in their favor.
It was a clumsy move however, and the United States questioned the resources required to run such a meeting. That was aimed squarely at ITU Secretary General Hamadoun Toure who is extremely conscious of the diminished budget he has to deal with (despite an extra $5m being pumped in by Russia).
Talking earlier about the WSIS meeting in 2015 (known as WSIS+10), Toure noted that the WSIS process run from 2003-2005 could have paid for the installation of ICTs in hundreds of schools. He suggested a lighter approach.
The ITU is moving, slowly and painfully into the 21st century. You have to be in awe of the Internet’s revolutionary power.