WCIT: Put off to tomorrow what you can't do today

The Kenyans settle in at WCIT. Credit: ITU

After a busy start, WCIT started to settle down into a familiar mode on the second day of the conference. The main highlights were:

  • A bid by Canada and the US to get some key definitions agreed before work starts was pushed off until the end of the week
  • The meeting delegates all agreed that they agreed with freedom of expression and human rights but that they didn't want to write it into a telecoms treaty - a press release was produced instead
  • Russia's controversial new article covering the Internet was pushed into "informal discussions"
  • Ghana's idea to review the ITRs every eight years (rather than 24 years) was met aggressively by the United States.
  • The ITU's Secretary-General pushed access in developing countries and the high cost of Internet access, pointing to a likely strategy for the rest of the conference.

What’s a recognized operating agency?

A key element of this review of the international telecommunication regulations (ITRs) is how far the international treaty will be extended into the modern world.

In just about every contribution provided to this conference, the question over who exactly these rules cover has been referenced. The key terms are "recognized operating agencies" and "operating agencies", plus "telecommunications".

The distinction is huge. One could mean just traditional telecoms operators like AT&T, British Telecom, Verizon, Vodafone etc; the other would include Internet companies like Google and Facebook. Effectively the decision will determine whether the ITRs remain within their telco box or expand in 2012 to cover all those companies that live from information spread over data networks.

Canada and the United States decided that it may be best to try to nip this issue in the bud and proposed that the decision on what the definitions were, and who they covered, was made on day one and before any other discussions started.

On one level, this was a smart move - it would mean the entire conference became less ambiguous and people would know exactly who they were negotiating on behalf of. But of course, a huge amount of intergovernmental discussion exists within ambiguity. Everyone knew the United States would draw a red line on the issue and the whole conference would grind to a halt until this key issue was decided. And so the conference decided relatively quickly that it would simply put the issue off until Friday.

Both Canada and the US saw this coming of course, but the move served the purpose of clearly highlighting to the rest of the delegations where the dividing line will be and put the issue at the forefront of people's minds at the start of the conference.

Freedom of Expression

The ITU and in particular its Secretary-General Hamadoun Toure has been stung by criticism that some of the proposals made for WCIT would break UN Human Rights agreements as well as damage free expression. In the UN world, this is dangerous waters.

And so Toure has been at pains to note that nothing agreed at WCIT would ever break the fundamental larger treaties that the UN has agreed to. He has even publicly expressed a wish on several occasions that the relevant treaties be referenced in the preamble to the ITRs.

This concept - put forward formally by the Tunisian delegation - was roundly beaten by other countries who don't think that such lofty statements have much to do with telecoms regulations. But in the way that only the United Nations can everyone agreed that this was a tremendous aim and they wholeheartedly supported it - just not in any tangible way.

After a plea from Toure, who rather disconcertingly complained at some length about the bad press the ITU had been receiving, it was agreed that the ITU would put out a press release. Sure enough, that night, the following release was pushed out to the media:

World Conference on International Telecommunications affirms right to freedom of information online

Delegates at the second Plenary session of the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12, 3-14 December) today overwhelmingly supported the importance of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirming the right of all people to freedom of opinion and expression…

This is actually not a bad result considering the United Nations world, but it still jars with those that live outside its rarefied walls. It points to a dangerous disconnect between government representatives and people living in the real world. A press release is deemed sufficient response to the Fourth Estate; maybe now they will just leave us alone to get on with the serious business of revising this treaty.

The Internet

By far in a way the most controversial proposal has been Russia's contribution number 27 which spat in the face of all the claims that WCIT was not secretly about taking over the Internet by bolding asking for a whole new article called simply "Internet".

The original version of the contribution was incendiary - proposing that the UN look at the key technical functions that ICANN, among others, currently undertake. The Russians must have known the reaction it would have, and just a few days produced a revised version that pulled out the most difficult aspects. Some are claiming that it was because of the complaints by the Internet community but the reality is that Russia decided to stir the pot ahead of the conference.

The plenary session yesterday reached the proposed Article 3A just before it was due to shut up for the night. And so followed an inevitable tussle that will raise its head many times before WCIT is finally over.

The United States was of course the most public voice against the proposal and it wanted its discussion kept in the main room (as its definition plan was earlier (see above)) rather than be discussed in a working group. That was met with some support from Europe which also agreed that the proposal should go precisely nowhere.

On the other side was Russia, Kazakhstan, China, Algeria and the United Arab Emirates. And so the chair, desperate not to run over on the first day of discussions pushed the idea of "informal discussion" on the issue to breaking point. It will be picked up tomorrow. And probably the next day. And the next day. And the next. The likelihood is that it will finally be thrown out, but that's all just a part of the game at a world conference.

Come back every eight years

Ghana has made two proposals to WCIT, the second and more significant being that the ITRs be reviewed every eight years rather than every 24 (the ITRs was drawn up in 1988). Since Ghana's representative has been chosen as chair for a key committee, you can expect to see this proposal reappear in many different forms over the next fortnight.

The idea also provides the ITU with an out and a compromise it can wield if things turn nasty: we will put this discussion off until a specified later date.

The United States of course hates the idea because it will mean having to fight to protect its Internet assets every eight years rather than use its influence to put off any review for as long as humanely possible.

If we were to bet, this will be the issue where the US is left out on a limb later on in the conference. A more frequent review of the ITRs will make sense for many countries and it will act as a wonderful pressure valve on those issues that cannot be agreed upon in the next two weeks. We shall see what results.

Access and the ITU Secretary-General's ace card

The head of the ITU, Hamadoun Toure, is acutely aware that the WCIT conference represents a huge turning point for the organization. If the ITRs can be pulled into the Internet era then the organization will continue to have a significant role for the next 100 years; if it is boxed into technology standards, it will become an increasingly less important agency.

The ace card in this situation is the fact that Toure comes from Mali and that the African voting block will be the crucial deciders of where the ITRs end up. The one big thing that bothers Africa is access: while the Western world complains that it can only get 20Mbps in their home, African countries still have to fight to get connected at all.

Access is an untouchable concept in a similar vein to child abuse images, terrorism and security - no one can argue against it. The same pattern plays out at every UN conference: developing nations complain they are disadvantaged; everyone agrees it is terrible; African countries try to get money to fix the problem; everyone finds a way around doing so.

What Toure can manage with WCIT however is to justify the expansion of the ITRs into the Internet world, and get through some changes that will give the ITU significant influence over the coming decades by using the access card and his African connections.

The conference is only one day old and Toure has already highlighted access as a key issue on at least three occasions. This then is the gameplan. And with the African vote so crucial on issue that countries hold dearly, you can expect to see some serious behind-the-scenes negotiations going on. Don’t be surprised if some African countries suddenly find themselves the beneficiaries of international aid to help build their domestic infrastructure over the next six months.