The highlights and low points of WCIT

It was both very fast and painfully slow. The key moments

Iran forces a vote, and presages the end of WCIT. Credit: ITU

One thing that everyone could agree on in the build-up to the World Conference on International Telecommunications was that anything could happen during the two weeks in Dubai.

The logic of forcing the world's governments into a box to rewrite a global treaty that has stood for 24 years in just 14 days may be questionable, but it definitely creates an event and along with that moments that stand out and set the general tone and atmosphere of the meeting itself.

Here are that main ones from WCIT 2012:


Opening ceremony

After an unprecedented amount of pre-conference coverage and posturing, the conference got off to a roaring start when the ITU's Secretary General Hamadoun Toure not only invited the CEO of ICANN Fadi Chehade to the meeting but also gave him a speaking slot in a short opening ceremony.

This was a bold move on both Toure and Chehade's parts, and the chair of the conference Mohamed Al Ghanim bent the rules to make it happen. With the issue of Internet governance overshadowing the entire event, Chehade's appearance served both ICANN and the ITU. ICANN could be seen as conciliatory and also eek out a public promise from Toure that the ITU would not tread on ICANN's toes; and the ITU was able to send a very clear message both to the world and the conference that it was not going to use WCIT to move into the Internet governance space.

The move paid off. Chehade must have been nervous that he would face the ire of the Internet community but while his decision to attend was not met with excitement, crucially it was not condemned either.

It also gave the ITU breathing space. Reporters started taking the ITU's rebuttals more seriously and began looking into the actual proposals made. The strong positions of the US government and particularly Google came under critical review. Suddenly it looked like the ITU might be able to pull off a successful conference rather than have to deal with the expected bloodbath.


It took an inordinate amount of pressure but the ITU decided it would publicly webcast both its plenary sessions and those of the key committee where the main discussions would take place.

This was a significant step away from the past - where people needed an ITU-supplied login and password to access webcasts. It also showed that the organization had listened and responded to external criticism. And it enabled people to see what was really going on, rather than rely on second-hand accounts.

The super-secretive, dastardly ITU that had been the subject of extensive lobbying efforts was revealed as an organization doing complex, serious (and, frankly, rather dull) work. It also allowed for many different viewpoints and the chairs of the meetings were seen to be highly professional and trying to find a way to get everyone to agree.

Low points

Unfortunately, as we now know, despite a very positive beginning, the conference slowly span out of control, ending in nearly 40 percent of countries saying they would not sign the final text.

These were the key moments that put the conference on a path from success to failure:

Room C, 5.30pm, Wednesday

It was clear that agreement was not being reached on several key issues - the most significant of course being an effort to introduce a new article on the Internet into the international telecommunication regulations (ITRs).

Al Ghanim and Toure attempted to deal with this in the only way they knew how: closed groups of fewer and fewer people. Debates among countries became debates among regional groups, became debates among just four representatives from each region.

Word came down to the Internet organizations that the key issue of what was going to happen with references to the Internet was going to happen at 5.30pm in Room C. And so a number of them turned up outside the room to find out what the situation was. This was the reason many had become sector members of the ITU (paying more than $30,000 for the pleasure) plus paid $5,000 to attend the conference, and also flown halfway across the world for two weeks, leaving their businesses behind.

But when they turned up, a security guard prevented anyone but government representatives and ITU staff from entering. Or, more simply to his eyes, only people with brown and blue badges.

This was in fact where the decision was taken to move the proposed new article for the Internet and move it outside the core treaty to a non-binding resolution of the conference. There was limited time before the next plenary session was scheduled and in this closed meeting the broad text was agreed, including the problematic line that "all governments should have an equal role and responsibility for international Internet governance".

Toure and Al Ghanim clearly felt they had reached a good enough compromise by the end of the meeting but they were wrong. As was unfortunately demonstrated several times during the conference, both the chair and the Secretary-General were deaf to the depth of concern and mistook people not arguing with them as a sign they were in agreement, or at least cowed into submission.

The small room approach rapidly fell apart when those inside were subsequently approached by the people waiting outside. The ITU consistently misjudged how this approach would play out and it led to the collapse of the conference.

The multi-stakeholder model means that governments will often take their cue from the agreed consensus of all parties on subjects where they are expert. The traditional approach that the ITU still subscribes to is that government representatives will inform others of the decision they reached following negotiation and that is what will stand.

The ITU fundamentally does not understand the more modern dynamic, and the events in Room C provide the clearest example of where this disparity caused a dangerous gap between perception and reality.

The non-vote vote at 1am

Moment of the non-vote vote at 1am. Credit: Dominique Lazanski

This is the moment that people are most likely to identify as when the conference went down a path it couldn't come back from.

It was getting very late - 1am with the session needing to end at 1.30am. The chair has pushed discussion of the actual proposed treaty until very late in the conference and the key Internet resolution was at the end of the documents.

The chair was very keen to do several things:

  • Make sure the Internet resolution was briefly discussed that night in order to tease out concerns and give people time to reach agreement before the next time it was discussed
  • Close the meeting in the next 30 mins before the translators went home or people began to leave, or pass out
  • Ensure discussion didn't turn into warfare

It was quickly clear that the compromise reached earlier (see the Room C, 5.30pm low point above) was not going to hold water, leaving dangerously little time. Al Ghanim, who thought he had brought the Americans on board, was angered by the comments of US Ambassador Terry Kramer who made it clear the US wasn't going to support the resolution.

You can read the transcript of what happened here.

As the language grew stronger, more countries requested to speak and the chair felt he had to close down conversation until the morning. And so he pulled out a tool occasionally used by meeting chairs to give people a break and force broader reflection: he asked for the "feel of the room" on the issue and asked representatives to hold up their country placards to demonstrate whether they were in favor of the resolution or against it.

So far, so good. The show of hands would be enough of a break in proceedings to shut the discussion down for the night and it would also prompt the governments to take a position, as well as identify where others were.

But then Al Ghanim made a fateful mistake and after the show of hands demonstrated more countries in favor of keeping it than ditching it, he said: "The majority agreed to adopt the resolution as amended."

The word "adopt" implied that a vote had been taken. And Al Ghanim then moved forward as if the resolution had passed initial approval and would go to the next stage.

Immediately he was asked if a formal vote had just been carried out. No, said Al Ghanim, but then failed to correct himself clearly enough and an exhausted room felt that the key sticking point in the whole conference was being forced through. The conference never recovered.

The vote on human rights

If the first non-vote vote had derailed the conference, it was the first proper vote that put a nail in its coffin.

Despite frequent assurances by the Secretary-General than the ITU never votes but only adopts things by consensus, the conference was forced into a vote by the Iranian representative the next morning after a long, lengthy and largely circuitous discussion about including a reference to human rights in the preamble of the treaty.

On one level, Iran was right: the conference had to move forward. And the very late suggestion of a line of new text threatened to eat up several more hours that were vital for other parts of the review.

The end result was a series of votes. A vote yes to stop discussion of the preamble text. A vote no to stop discussion. An abstention vote. This was easily carried - a large number said yes, no one said no, and quite a few countries abstained because they didn’t feel they could formally vote to end discussion of human rights.

But then a second round of votes was carried out. A vote yes that the new text should be included; a vote no; and an abstain. In this case, there were 77 for and 33 against. And at that precise moment, as most of the room applauded, the treaty was dead.

Why? Because:

  1. The ITU had just held a vote on content within the treaty - something it had promised consistently it would not do
  2. It was immediately obvious that the Internet resolution - and the other issues that were still not agreed - would be put to a similar vote now it had been done once, and that following the non-vote the previous night, the Internet resolution would pass
  3. The chair had lost control of the meeting and had his hand forced by one of the most difficult and divisive figures in the room - the Iranian representative.

At that point it became clear that the many different point of disagreements were never going to be bridged. As the applause died down, so the chair's screen lit up with more than a dozen requests from countries to speak.

The US was first and Kramer informed the conference that he would not sign the treaty. And if there was any doubt, the UK came next and said the same thing. From there it was a downhill slide into oblivion.

The Americans walk. Credit: ITU

As of today, of the 193 member states, 152 of which were at the conference, 89 have signed the treaty but 55 have not - either refusing to or saying they need to go back to their capitals for formal agreement.

By contrast, the original ITRs in 1988 saw 112 countries sign up on the last day, with a further 75 signing up later (bringing it up to 187).

In a world where conference are only ever measured by whether they are a "success" or a "great success", the Secretary-General managed to saw that it had been a "success" but even in the UN this felt uncomfortable. A high-stakes game had been played badly and WCIT was a failure.