WCIT: What happened and what it means for the internet

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Gabrielle Guillemin

19 Dec 2012

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After two weeks of intensive negotiations, the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) adopted the revised International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs), a controversial treaty, which has been viewed by many as an attempt by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and Member States to take over the Internet.  

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The conference has been hailed as a success by the ITU with 89 Member States signing the treaty. Meanwhile, others have pointed out that it failed to achieve consensus leading to 55 Member States, including the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and several other EU countries not signing the treaty. 

So what happened in Dubai? Clearly, at the heart of the negotiations was the question whether the ITRs were going to cover the Internet and broader Internet policy issues. Despite repeated assurances of the ITU Secretary-General, Dr Hamadoun Toure, that the ITRs were not about the Internet or Internet Governance, it was abundantly clear that the ‘I’ word was on the minds of delegates as they set to discuss the Preamble to the ITRs and various other provisions about spam and security.

After over a week of stalemate, matters came to a halt when the Iranian delegate called for a vote on the inclusion of the ‘right of access of Member States to access international telecommunications services’ in the Preamble to the ITRs. The proposal came in as delegates were debating the inclusion human rights language in that same Preamble. The amendment was passed by a vote of 77 for, 33 against and 8 abstentions. For several western Member States this crossed a red line amid concerns over several other provisions and a controversial Internet Resolution contained in the ‘package’ proposed by WCIT Chair Mohamed Nasser Al Ghanim (UAE).

As the Chair highlighted several times, the ‘package’ was a compromise text, which was meant to achieve a ‘delicate balance’ between the various interests at stake. In particular, it introduced a reference to ‘human rights obligations’ in the Preamble to the ITRs, partly with a view to assuage concerns about the possible negative implications for freedom of expression and the right to privacy which may arise as a result of the provisions on security and spam. Another clause was also added making clear that the ITRs did not address the content-related aspects of international telecommunications services.

At the same time, these elements failed to address the basic objection of several Member States led by the US that spam brought in content-related issues, which was inconsistent with the new clause excluding content from the ambit of the ITRs. Moreover, there were continuing concerns over the vague language used in Article 5A in relation to ‘network security’, which was seen by many as legitimizing censorship and sweeping surveillance practices by Member States.

Finally, the ‘Internet Resolution’ proved to be a particularly sticking point for non-signatory countries, not least because of the way in which it was adopted.  The resolution ‘to foster an enabling environment for the greater growth of the Internet’ had been included as part of a deal whereby the word ‘Internet’ would be kept out of the treaty text and pushed back in a Resolution. On 13 December 2013, the Chair baffled EU delegates and others by passing the Resolution after ‘taking the temperature of the room’ - without a vote - just minutes before the close of a plenary session in the wee hours of the morning.

While the Resolution is non-binding, it overly emphasised the role of States in Internet–policy making at the expense of the multi-stakeholder model, which has been the hallmark of Internet Governance. It also unduly broadened the mandate of the ITU beyond its traditional technical remit to include Internet public policy matters despite assurances of the ITU Secretary-General to the contrary.

The introduction of a ‘right of Member States to access international telecommunications services’ was the nail in the coffin. As the debate took place on the back of a discussion about human rights, the amendment was widely regarded as an attempt to legitimise state control over the Internet. The reality might be more complex than that. In particular, it has been argued that this right could be used to force Internet application, content and service providers to provide services to particular organizations and in territories even if they don’t want to.

So what should we make of the ITRs? Although it fell well below international standards of freedom of expression, as a compromise text, the Chair’s package was just about acceptable. And even now, the ITRs remain a high level document, the word ‘Internet’ does not feature in the main text of the treaty and a number of contentious proposals, such as the ETNO proposal, have been averted. It also contains a reference to human rights, which is unusual but welcome for a telecommunications treaty.

At the same time, the vague language of the provisions about security and spam could be used to give a veneer of international legitimacy to undue restrictions on free speech and privacy online. The Internet Resolution was politically unacceptable and irretrievably tainted by the deeply unsatisfactory process[1] whereby it was adopted. In a climate of distrust about some of the Member States and the ITU’s true intentions, there were serious reservations to be had regarding the revised agreement, which was not even necessary in the first place. As the UK concluded, ‘My delegation came to work for revised ITRs. But not at any cost. We're not able to sign a bad agreement that does nobody any favors and makes nobody happy’.

Are the ITRs going to make any real practical difference to the Internet as we know it? Seems unlikely, at least for now. At the same time, the split in the number of countries who signed the agreement and those who didn’t clearly shows widely different views about the future of the Internet and the provision of telecommunication services. The WCIT also brought into sharp relief the concerns of developing countries that seek greater access to the Internet.

Looking ahead, it is clear that these and other concerns will have to be recognized and addressed in the various multi-stakeholder fora where Internet policy is being discussed. As the ITU seeks to assert its relevance in Internet policy discussions, particularly around cybercrime, Internet advocates will have to continue pushing for greater access and transparency of this organization in line with the multi-stakeholder model of Internet Governance. These changes are vital and need to take place as soon as possible as a slew of other meetings that will further shape the debate over the role of governments and the ITU lie ahead beyond WCIT in the run up to the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS+10).



[1] It later emerged that this process was common ITU practice, which was meant to help achieve consensus

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