Increased government control is blocked for now, but the threat still looms

At the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the devil is in the detail. This became apparent during recent discussions at the ITU-Telecommunication Standardization Sector’s (ITU-T) 2016 World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly (WTSA), hosted in Tunisia. While the major threats were ultimately mitigated, several proposals for new and revised resolutions at the WTSA calling for further research into ‘Over-The-Top’ (OTT) services and Digital Object Architecture (DOA) presented real dangers to freedom of expression and privacy online.

The tone of the debate at this year’s WTSA reflects a worrying trend for the future of Internet Governance. During the conference, nations with poor track records on freedom of expression and privacy tried to further expand the mandate of the ITU, and the ITU-T in particular, in ways that would facilitate greater regulatory control over the Internet.

The structure of the ITU renders it vulnerable to this type of politicization, as states and regional coalitions seek to grab greater control over the work being done. Unlike the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) or the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the ITU isn’t a multi-stakeholder community: the key actors at the ITU are Member States. Private industry and other organizations can only participate as non-voting Sector Members contributing to technical work. The ITU’s mandate encompasses various aspects of international telecommunications, but in recent decades, its scope has broadened to consider the technical and policy dimensions of the Internet. Such an expansion of mandate is of concern, as the influence of state interests on the technical infrastructure of the Internet may strengthen, and if unchecked, may lead to increased censorship and a restrictive online environment for users.

At this year’s WTSA, two major issues in the negotiations held critical implications for users in the future: OTT services and DOA.

“Over-The-Top” services (OTT)

The term “Over-The-Top” is extremely broad, and is used to describe any third-party service or application that delivers audio, video, or other media over the Internet to users without the use of a traditional distribution model. Examples of OTT services include apps like Whatsapp and Skype.  At the WTSA, the proposers of a new draft resolution on the topic called for the scope of ITU-T work to include any service with voice, video, or messaging features. This seemingly innocent proposal could have had a much wider impact than the ITU-T’s traditional mandate, as it could include video streaming services like Netflix that bear no relevance to telecommunications, or even YouTube, which is widely used as a platform for citizen journalism, protest, and accessing information.

Ultimately, the Assembly failed to move forward on the resolution, and its language was almost entirely abandoned. So, why are a couple of phrases in a failed resolution still important? Despite concerns about their impact on traditional telecommunications markets, access to alternative telephony applications like Whatsapp, Skype, and Facebook diversify users’ access to information and provide platforms for individual expression. Moreover, the scope of the proposed resolution would have extended to applications like Telegram and Signal, which are relied on for secure communication and user privacy. Such a resolution could be the first step towards greater regulatory control that would curtail users’ access to these applications altogether.

The debate on OTT services isn’t over: the WTSA did approve directives to conduct future work on the issue. The trajectory of the ITU-T’s influence over OTT services holds significant implications for the future of Internet public policy, technical standards development, and freedom of expression.

Digital Object Architecture (DOA)

The Digital Object Architecture is a multi-purpose technology that was originally designed to manage information in a network environment. It may be applied as a system that registers and uniquely identifies smartphones and other Internet-connected devices (Internet Society provides a good overview of DOA here). At the WTSA, several proposals for new or revised resolutions were introduced that positioned DOA as a solution to a range of issues, from counterfeit in mobile devices to access to e-health services.

DOA is a proprietary technology and its parent organization, the DONA Foundation, falls short of being transparent or multi-stakeholder in its policy development processes. These are crucial features that must be present in the operation of a global digital identifier system. This system may be susceptible to abuse by any particular state actor or coalition if implemented through the ITU, which would compromise the privacy and trust of those using devices registered under it. More fundamentally, by passing resolutions that advocate for the use of a single technology over others, the ITU would contravene its own position as a technology neutral body. The focus of the WTSA should be to frame the problems that it directs ITU-T study groups to work on over the course of the next four years. It should not posit solutions before they have even been studied.

Thanks to strong pushback from Member States, the WTSA moved to strike all direct and indirect references to DOA from the new and revised resolutions passed during the conference, which is a very positive outcome. However, this issue isn’t settled. An oblique reference to “digital object architecture” lingers in a new resolution on combatting counterfeit telecommunications and ICT devices. We expect this debate to recur in future ITU meetings, assemblies, and conferences.

While ultimately averted, WTSA resolutions on OTT, DOA, and other issues show an increasing trend towards expanding the ITU-T’s reach beyond technical standards in telecommunications infrastructure to regulating the very content that is sent over these networks. The ITU is not well adapted to develop this kind of Internet Governance policy on digital expression or privacy, as it does not function through multi-stakeholder processes. As we look ahead to the next four years of the new ITU-T study period and the future of the ITU overall, it will be essential for a wider range of actors, including civil society, to find spaces for greater observation and participation in its standard-setting work.

ARTICLE 19 attended the 2016 WTSA to observe the proceedings as part of its broader work on Internet Governance. We’re already actively engaged in Internet Governance and technical standard-setting bodies like the IETF, ICANN and the IEEE. We are also active participants in discussions at the UN Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly.