Sorting out the past 36 hours at the WCIT

Anyone following the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) over the last 36 hours knows this has become a moment of high drama around the International Telecommunications regulations (ITRs) and the role of the ITU for internet-related issues.

Unfortunately, that is probably the only thing anyone can say for certain. Even the member states on the ground have expressed confusion on critical matters, such as whether the widely reported “vote” on a resolution that included express language relating to the internet was really a vote or not. 

Public Knowledge does not want to pre-judge any final outcomes while everyone remains in negotiation and debate.  We are also mindful that the 8 hour time difference between Washington, DC, and the conference in Dubai, and the incredible speed with which events keep unfolding, has made us hesitate to say anything. But at this critical juncture we need to emphasize some important points.

First, we remain committed to the Civil Society declaration at Best Bits in Baku, Azerbaijan last month.   Consistent with this, we continue to urge the ITU members to reject any version of the ITRs or any resolutions that would expand the scope of the ITU to Internet governance or Internet services. We want to highlight that this does not just mean any explicit reference. As an organization that has fought against the expansion of copyright maximalism in international agreements as a threat to internet freedom, we are well aware of how parties with agendas try to create ambiguities that they can subsequently leverage to advance that agenda. Any ambiguity about words and phrases that would support an argument that actions at WCIT opened the door for ITU expansion of its jurisdiction in these areas need to be either clarified or rejected.

Second, we want to emphasize that nothing is gained for anyone if the conference resorts to dubious procedures. We recognize that in the thick of things, after many hours of intense negotiations, some things are genuinely unclear. We are very glad that the Chair clarified at the Plenary, following the “vote v. temperature” controversy, that it was not a vote. But the incident serves as a warning that the legitimacy of the conference outcomes – and the ability of the ITU Secretary General to maintain its role as an “honest broker” among the member states – depends on keeping the process crystal clear. 

This is not a time to try to get something passed in a dubious manner so that the ITU or member states can declare the WCIT a “success.” Adopting something through confusion, or questionable procedure, would create an atmosphere of distrust that would potentially poison ITU deliberations on these issues for years to come.

We at PK understand that the ITU Secretariat and the Chair of any ITU conference always play a role in pushing delegates hard to reach consensus. But Chairman Al-Ghanim and Secretary General Touré need to be very conscious in these final hours that – for the first time in ITU history –  the whole world is watching these events unfold in real time. 

This places a special responsibility on them to make it clear to people generally unfamiliar with the ITU and its processes that what comes out of the WCIT – whether consistent with the Best Bits Civil Society Declaration or not – genuinely comes from the ITU’s member states and not because the ITU or the Chair tipped the scales procedurally.

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