ITU’s Plenipot: What Happened

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The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is a United Nations (UN) agency originally created in 1865 to manage cross-national telegraphic communications, and is increasingly seen by its member states as the technology policy branch of the UN system. While to date it is formally responsible only for telecommunications issues, in recent years the ITU has hosted a global summit on Artificial Intelligence (AI), organized a workshop on e-payments and 5G, held a forum on the Internet of Things and Smart Cities, studied the economic impact of the so-called Over-The-Top (OTT) internet services such as WhatsApp or YouTube, developed a global cybersecurity index, and analyzed privacy in cloud computing. That, on top of ITU’s fundamental mandate and ongoing work to help connect the hundreds of millions who are still unconnected.

Every four years, ITU member states meet at a three-week conference, the Plenipotentiary (or the Plenipot), to set the priorities of the organization for the next period and elect its top five leadership positions. The Plenipot took place this year in Dubai, from the end of October to the middle of November. Civil society was represented by a network of groups from around the world that included Public Knowledge and other organizations such as Article 19, Access Now, ISOC, APC, ITS Rio, ADC, Derechos Digitales, and Global Partners Digital. Meaningful presence in the Plenipot is an important civil society achievement -- intergovernmental organizations such as the ITU are not designed to naturally incorporate non-governmental voices, even though its decisions broadly affect all stakeholders across the internet ecosystem.

Here are some of the key issues that Public Knowledge followed in the Plenipot:

  • AI: It seemed impossible that the Plenipot would end without the ITU receiving some kind of formal mandate to work on AI. After all, the US, Europe, and other regions had brought proposals to do so. However, in the end, there was no consensus on the scope of the ITU’s work in this area, and no resolution was adopted by the conference. This outcome does not prevent the ITU from continuing to work on AI issues more informally though, as it has done until now.
  • OTTs: Many regions and member states brought proposals to establish the ITU’s priorities on OTT issues. The major division was between proposals to keep the ITU’s mandate on OTTs narrow and focused on environments that encourage the participation of non-governmental actors and proposals encouraging the ITU to offer more specific regulatory proposals, while excluding civil society and the private sector from their development. In the end, the first approach prevailed and the Plenipot limited itself to recognizing ITU’s existing work on OTTs without expanding this mandate.
  • Cybersecurity: Here again, ITU member states are divided on the extent of the organization’s cybersecurity mandate. Some wanted the ITU to become the convener of an international convention on cybersecurity. Others preferred a risk-based approach that takes into account the efforts of specialized agencies such as the Inter-American Committee against Terrorism or the Global Forum on Cyber Expertise. The latter approached prevailed and the ITU will not convene a process for a cybersecurity treaty.
  • Privacy: Some member states called on the ITU to keep working on privacy and data protection in various proposals that dealt with OTTs, cybersecurity, and even the transition to IPv6. In the end, the ITU’s work on privacy remains limited.
  • Role of states in internet governance: It became obvious in the Plenipot that many countries outside the Americas, Europe, Oceania, and Japan are dissatisfied with the multistakeholder model of internet governance and would like the ITU to push the centrality of governments in representing and deciding the public interest. However, given that the ITU is a consensus-driven organization, there was no agreement towards disrupting the internet governance status quo.
  • International Telecommunication Regulations Treaty (ITRs): Last renegotiated in the infamous and divisive 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT, informally known as “the wicked”), ITRs is intended as “the binding global treaty designed to facilitate international interconnection and interoperability of information and communication services.” However, many countries including the US have not signed or ratified the 2012 ITRs out of the belief that it went too far into internet governance territory better served by multistakeholder institutions and other processes foreign to the ITU. Nevertheless, despite the horrible 2012 experience, some regions went to the Plenipot proposing to have yet another conference to revise and update the ITRs. Fortunately, no new WCIT will be convened.
  • Community networks: The Americas region had put together a joint proposal to treat new actors such as community networks as valuable for narrowing the digital divide. Public Knowledge believes that it is critical that member states leverage the ITU’s radio spectrum and telecommunications expertise to find new and efficient ways to bring more people online, in collaboration with community networks and other contributing actors. Unfortunately, and incredibly, only European nations supported the inter-American proposal to mandate the recognition of community networks, and it was defeated.

The Plenipot made obvious a stark divide between the Americas, Europe, Oceania, and a handful of other countries in how to approach internet governance. This basic lack of consensus on core issues -- including multi-stakeholderism, the meaning of privacy, and freedom of expression -- is a threat to the future of the open internet. Public Knowledge will keep working to ensure that the internet keeps functioning as a whole and that no one anywhere is left behind.

Image credit: ITU Pictures on Flickr

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