We have reached the final day of Plenipot 14 and the Final Acts (pdf) are already online, all 366 pages of it. The final Plenary with its signing ceremony will begin an hour from now and delegates are starting to meander into the room, which just a few minutes ago, was almost empty.
Rather than report on the events of today, which are largely ceremonial and self-congratulatory, I thought I might reflect on where we stand after more than a year of preparatory events and three weeks of conferencing.
Of course, this world conference cannot be taken in isolation. The story begins much earlier, back to the World Telecommunications Development Conference (WTDC) earlier this year, to the World Telecommunications Policy Forum (WTPF) before that in 2013, to the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) and the World Telecommunications Standardization Assembly (WTSA) of the same year. Back even further to the Guadalajara Plenipotentiary in 2010.
The relationship between the International Telecommunications Union and the Internet has been a matter of enthusiastic debate for some time, at least since 2010, but really before that back to the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). It’s a long story that I can’t hope to tackle here. Except to say this is a debate which showing signs of abating.
The Internet, and the telecommunications infrastructure on which it runs, are inseparable. Since the very nature of the Internet blurs traditional geographic boundaries, an organization devoted to coordinating the international relationships created by undersea cable networks, radio spectrum, satellite orbits and the like, might feel like it has some skin in the game. Indeed the Internet continues to cause something of a quandary for the organization. The ITU has always ‘ruled the roost’ in matters of telecommunications networks and since the Internet runs over them (wires and spectrum), it seems only natural to some Member States that the ITU should be the lead decision-making agency for the Internet.
At one end of the spectrum, there are administrations that believe the current system of multistakeholder-led decision-making is doing a great (or good enough) job and should be allowed to continue. At the other end are those that argue the management of critical global resources by non-governmental agencies is unacceptable. These administrations argue the ITU, as the lead UN agency on matters of telecommunications, must be allowed to do.
In the middle are those that are not entirely happy with the status quo, but don’t really see the ITU as the answer. Of course there are a dozen shades of grey in between.
There were many, many issues discussed and agreed at Plenipot, but control over the technical and administrative functions of the Internet may be one that the ITU membership has now decided to stay out of.
There is no doubt the ITU has an important role to play in the further development of the global telecommunications infrastructure. APNIC is a Development Sector member of the ITU for this very reason. They have the contacts and the resources to help developing countries lift themselves up and join the digital economy. It is a function on the world’s stage of which the organization could be proud: One that it can execute with confidence.
Some administrations want more for the Union. As its Members sometimes struggle to gain momentum on the Internet they look to the ITU. It often also seems the ITU has become a victim of forum shopping. Administrations that have not been able to realize their ambitions in other places, processes, and agencies, bring their complaints to the ITU and try to force their agendas onto what is historically a technical standards body. This has resulted in a constant stream of proposals that seek to expand the ITU’s mandate into related information technology areas. The proposals creep higher up the layers into matters of content, cybercrime, national security, and so on. Domains that other organizations, even other UN agencies, already have a mandate to act.
These attempts by Member States to seek legitimacy and guidance to tackle these very real issues and problems has put the ITU in a constant state of conflict and tension for several years.
Member States, who are frightened and frustrated by multifarious dangers posed by the Internet turn to the ITU for solutions. Proposal after proposal seeks to expand the ITU’s mandate, to demand the Secretariat do more, to call for global or regional cybercrime agreements, to find technical solutions and so on.
On the other side of the debate are administrations that believe the ITU should stick to what it knows best, to tighten its belt and focus on what it has already been tasked to do, not find new things jobs that will overload it.
Those against the ITU expanding its mandate bat back the proposals and the proposers bat back their rebuttal endlessly. Those seeking change know they will have to fight for every reference that advances their goal, so they don’t only propose to insert their provisions into a single resolution, they pepper them through all the resolutions, repeating the same text multiple times in the hope of getting at least one through.
In some respects it is a ‘war of attrition’ approach that those delegations that seek to maintain the status quo and point the ITU’s limited resources where it can do most good, must fight over and over again, not just every four years at the Plenipotentiary, but at every time the ITU meets.
On the other hand it is becoming more and more apparent that these inflammatory proposals that threaten to ‘take over the Internet’ have become little more than hollow threats used as a negotiating chip and traded off for some other text change under discussion.
Some commentators proclaim the ‘Internet has been saved from the ITU again’. Perhaps equally, the debate has been concluded and those that once proposed a change in the status quo have conceded that the ITU is, at least, not the answer to the question of Internet Governance. What it probably means though is that the upcoming review of the implementation of WSIS Outcomes in December 2015 may become the new battleground.
Either way, it is entirely likely that contentious Internet proposals will continue to be a feature of ITU conferences once the WTSA preparatory process starts in a year or so.
Postscript: At the signing ceremony here in Busan, only 150 administrations of 173 present chose to the sign the final acts.
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