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In December, the United Nations will host the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). Public Knowledge has joined a group of more than thirty academics and civil society groups in signing a letter calling for greater opportunities for civil society participation in the planning process for WCIT.
PK is concerned by the lack of civil society participation in the preparations so far. Among other topics, at WCIT the UN Member States will decide whether the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the United Nations agency responsible for information and communication technologies, should take a greater role in shaping the future of the Internet. The potential impact of such a decision on freedom of expression, access to information, and privacy rights—areas of great concern to human rights groups—could be profound. Yet participation in this process is severely limited. Restrictions on sharing preparatory documents, the high cost of ITU membership, and the difficulty and expense of attending preparatory meetings—which cannot be attended remotely—all hamper the ability of civil society groups to participate in and remain informed about the planning process.
Compare participation under the ITU’s system to that of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). Like ITU, WIPO is part of the UN, but their public input process is comparatively much more open. A civil society organization wishing to participate in the WIPO process can apply to be an observer at WIPO meetings. This process is free and only requires submitting the organization’s information to the WIPO Secretariat.
In contrast, joining the ITU as a Sector Member or Associate—required to participate in working groups or attend preparatory meetings—is an expensive proposition, with minimum annual membership fees in the tens of thousands of dollars. Comparing the list of ITU members with WIPO observers, there is virtually no overlap. While private industry is represented at WIPO through trade associations, public interest organizations are also widely represented. In contrast, private companies are more than 90% of ITU members, with the remainder being academic institutions.
This exclusion of an entire class of stakeholders is contrary to World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) commitments, which called for international organizations to take a multi-stakeholder approach in policy decisions. PK joins the other signatories in urging ITU Secretary-General Dr. Hamadoun Touré, the Council Working Group preparing for WCIT, and ITU member states to take action to make participation in WCIT more inclusive, consistent with WSIS commitments. The following actions would do much to remove barriers to participation:
- Release all WCIT preparatory documents, and remove restrictions on their distribution and sharing.
- Allow participation by civil society—without cost—in preparations for WCIT and in WCIT itself by providing opportunities for participation, including remote participation.
- Allow participation within each Member State by soliciting input from all stakeholders on a national level and by releasing individual proposals for public debate.
The letter can be read online at CDT’s website.