How to Follow the WCIT


Greetings from Dubai! As an advisory member of the U.S. Delegation, I am not really able to comment on the substance of what is going on since there is only one spokesperson for the delegation.  That said, I can provide some basic guidance for those trying to follow this at home. Because, for the first time, you can (sort of) follow along at home through the ITU webcast of the Plennary and Committee 5 of WCIT and the transcription of captioning. (I get to what Plenary and “Com5” are below). There is also an official ITU blog here.

Folks in the U.S. get a rather warped view of the U.N. because we only notice it when some big news is brewing and member states are pretty resolved in their positions. ITU – and WCIT – involves lots of nerdy details of the kind that never get debated in the General Assembly. That means the usual U.N. politics don’t play out as much here. Instead, a whole different set of politics plays out here.

But lets get some nuts and bolts down. . . .

What Is The ITU and the WCIT?

Briefly the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is holding a meeting to consider amendments to the International Telecommunications  Regulation (ITRs). This meeting, the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT or WCIT-12; official hashtag #wcit12, but lots of folks using #wcit) is going on right now in Dubai. You can see general background and our involvement here

To follow along, the ITU is a treaty org with just about every country in the world.  It is based in Geneva and run by a Secretary General. United Arab Emirates (UAE) is the host country, and therefore the Chair is from UAE.

Who Can Play?

Member States. The various countries of the world are in ITU, and are the only ones who actually vote. The term “member state” finesses a bunch of things that are kinda-sorta country-like or situations like China and Taiwan, where each claims to be the actual “China” and refuses to officially acknowledge the other as an independent country.

Sector Members. Organizations relating to international communications can join as Sector Members. They don’t vote, but they can attend all the meetings and get access to all the working documents. Since this is all about editing documents in meetings, that is kind of important.

Individual observers. Unafiliated non-members willing to pay the registration fee can attend as individual observers. Individual observers can attend the Plenary and Committee 5 meetings, which are webcast. They cannot get into the working groups and cannot get access to the documents.

Where Does WCIT-12 Working Texts Come From?

WCIT operates under the general rules and procedures of the ITU. The Secretary General, Dr. Hamadoun Toure, does not actually run the meeting (that is the job of the Chair, Mohamed Nassir Al-Ghanim). The ITU Council set the rules for the WCIT when they convened it, and the ITU procedures—which are insanely confusing and require lots of experience to understand. As a result, you can expect to see lots of points of order raised. This also gives the chair of the plenary, and the chairs of the Committees and the working groups.

Pre-Game: State members got to submit proposed changes to the ITRs. In addition, member states get together in regional groups and the regional groups can submit proposals. Generally, countries in region try not to explicitly contradict the regional positions, but this is not absolutely true or required.

There are six regions:

[CITEL], a part of the [Organization of American States] , covers North and South America.

[CEPT] Covers Europe

[African Telecommunications Union] (ATU) Covers Africa.

[Asia-Pacific Telecom] (APT) Covers the Asia Pacific Region

Arab Block – Covers Middle Eastern countries not covered by ATU and APT.

Russian Consortium – Russia and Former Soviet Republics not covered by other regions.

As a pragmatic matter, regions tend to have their own internal regional differences and subgroups. For example, North African countries such as Algeria and Egypt have a lot in common culturally with the Arab Block. West Africa, East Africa, Central Africa, and South Africa have their own concerns as well having somewhat different perspective as Sub-Saharan Africa v. North Africa. Then there is the Francophone v. Anglophone division, because these countries have different legal systems and perspectives. These kinds of division – by language, by economic interest, by legal system, and others – are replicated in every regional group.

For the last year or so, we’ve had iterative proposals submitted, and the regional groups have met to develop regional proposals and positions. ITU had an official deadline for final substantive proposals, although countries can still submit process proposals at any time, as well as suggested compromise language. (Again, this becomes a possible debating point on whether something is new or merely process related or a modification of something already approved for consideration.) Everything got shoved in a blender, translated into the official languages of the conference, and distributed to the members in the form of numbered “Temporary Documents” (DTs). 

How Does Stuff Get Done?

Things work in the following structure.

The Plenary. This is the big gathering of all the members and the place where all official decisions get made.  Actual changes in text must get approved by the Plenary, as do decisions on credentials and any other major action.

In theory, the Plenary decides things by vote – one vote per member state. But the Plenary hates to vote, because it exposes serious rifts between member states that undermine the value of the ultimate finished product. Also, members that are behind on their dues can’t vote in Plenary. So Plenary tries to get a consensus draft. This does not mean that people aren’t obsessed with vote count, since whether you think you could win or lose a vote influences how hard you press and what you’re willing to agree to on compromise language.

Needless to say, Plenary does not handle the heavy lifting itself. Plenary delegates the heavy lifting to the Committees.

Committee 5 (Com5). Committee 5 handles the substantive agenda, and all the nasty, prickly definition issues (more on those below). Committee 5 also can’t handle the volume of necessary work, so it delegates down to working groups.

Working Groups (WGs) are where the hard work gets done. These tend to focus on specific issues either relating to a subject area or defined around a specific article. Working groups are created by the Chairman of the Committee or at the request of the Chair of the Plenary.

But even this level of granularity can be too much to handle, especially for highly controversial items. That leaves two other mechanisms. Ad Hoc Groups (AHG)can be created whenever a new issue crops up and the chair of the relevant WG, Com or Plenary decides that it doesn’t need a full working group. (Working Groups can only form Ad Hocs, Committees can form WG or AHGs).  Ad hoc working groups are basically working groups, but on an even more specific subject than a WG.

But wait! There is a level even below AHG. The Chair of an AHG (or anybody above in rank0 can ask a member delegate to lead an “informal discussion” around a particular point or issue.  The primary difference between an informal discussion and anything above it is that the informal discussion does not get a text to play with. The idea is that the parties may be able to talk something through and come to some form of agreement without resorting to dueling texts.

So, to sum up:

Plenary --> Committee, of which Committee 5 (Com5) is the important one --> Working Group (WG) --> Ad Hoc Grop (AHG) --> Informal discussion.

Everyone reports back to the group that birthed it. So AHGs report back to their WGs which then take that input and send it back to Com5, which will report back up to Plenary, which will then make the necessary changes in the ITR (or whatever other action is required).

What Happens In The Committees/WGs/AHGs?

The goal is to get a text back to the Plenary, which then passes on some number of readings. This means that all these various and sundry working acronyms are focused on taking the various proposals and editing them into a text that can get consensus. That means, basically, lots of people sitting in a room arguing about specific wording for these various provisions and whether these proposed provisions should even be added or not.

As you might imagine, this exercise is not merely painfully complicated and painfully boring, it is also insanely confusing – especially for those of you following along without the text.  Anyone who has watched a Committee Markup on C-Span knows how painful this can be. Now do it in five languages, with incredibly huge stakes, over highly technical and interrelated issues. And everyone here are professional talkers. Seriously, you do not get to be a diplomat at this level if you cannot talk up a storm or know your procedural points and tricks. So this stuff goes back and forth for hours.

Needless to say, you don’t tend to get a lot of agreement on text, at least at first. So contested proposals go in square brackets (“[]”). The idea is that you will mark stuff that doesn’t get consensus and keep moving. If you can’t reach consensus at your level, then you kick it up with square brackets to the next higher level and see if you can get resolution of the issue at that level. Ultimately, you would vote on a potential version, but no one wants to do that.

All of this gets captured in “temporary documents” (“DT” – because we want to confuse you by switching to French for the acronym). The documents are numbered in some arcane system I have not yet figured out. The agenda for a given day gets printed with a hyperlink to the relevant DTs for each item. The entire thing starts to get very confusing, as the chair says “OK, Article 6, Africa Proposal 6.5A in DT 27.” At which point I expect the delegate from Iceland to shout “Bingo” and start dancing around the room.

But of course, it is even more confusing for those at home who don’t have access to the documents. If ITU is ever hoping to make public participation meaningful, then access to the documents has to be a priority.

A WCIT Glossary.

DT – Temporary Document, but we will use French for the acronym just to confuse you. Issued by the ITU Secretary through the TIES document system and captures the proposed changes not yet agreed to.

Square brackets – Text that does not have consensus agreement is marked by square brackets []. It gets used as a noun and a verb. To “square bracket” something means to take an exception to including it.

“I don’t understand what [X] means” – “I don’t like your proposal, so I will pretend I can’t understand it.”

“The Chair proposes to adjourn” – signal to start arguing for at least another half hour, usually on what the actual finished product is and what is the next time you will meet.

Com5 – Committee 5, the substantive committee everyone is watching.

WG – Working Group. The level below Committee.

AHG- Ad Hoc Group, the next level down.

Informal Discussion – “Please get together and work something out so we can vaguely hope to get to at least the square bracket stage.”

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